Media pluralism in Georgia endangered
The Law on Broadcasting was adopted in 2004. It started the process of transforming Georgian TV from a state broadcasting entity to a public service broadcaster. In 2005 the Georgian Parliament elected a Board of Governors composed of nine members. The board later elected the General Director. An important objective was to produce high quality programs to raise the level of information and awareness among viewers on political, economic and cultural affairs.
Right from the very beginning the overriding goal of the reform was to free the Georgian Public Broadcaster Serivce (GPB) from the influence of the party in power and its policies. With this in mind many of its provisions visions served to prohibit any interference in the work of journalistic staff members. The function of the Board of Governors vetted by Parliament was to guarantee media freedom within GPB. In addition to this the GPB was granted significant funding from the state budget in order to ensure its independence from commercial and other outside interests.
The GPB failed to gain the trust and the interest of Georgian viewers and hence, as time passed by, several replacements were made both at managerial and board levels. In addition regular requests were made for increases in funding, irrespective of the people in charge. Thus the most recent General Director of GPB, Vasil Maglaferidze, pleaded that some of the restrictions placed on the GPB be lifted. The idea was to generate income from advertising and to deregulate tendering. According to Mr. Maglaferidze access to advertising revenue would give the GPB an estimated 2 Million GEL per annum. Deregulation would help to make its broadcasting projects more cost efficient.
This proposal was met with almost universal criticism from smaller Georgian media organizations, the NGO sector and opposition parties. In their view this move was a way to crowd small media organizations out of the advertising market and thereby undermine the pluralism that currently characterizes the Georgian media environment. Despite these objections the Parliament of Georgia amended the Law on Broadcasting, thereby increasing the powers of the state-funded Georgian Public Broadcasting Service, in a third and final reading on 22 December last year.
The Bill was subsequently vetoed by Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili. It was returned to Parliament for reconsideration with his comments attached. The President had two main complaints: the right to secure advertising income and the issue of how to regulate procurements.
During the debates Georgia’s Parliamentary Speaker, Irakli Kobakhidze, claimed that the aim of the amendments was to prevent losses in the order of tens of millions of GEL that had been incurred through improper use of state funds, including embezzlement. According to Kobakhidze GPB has a “zero rating” and the amendments adopted by Parliament were designed to put an end to mismanagement.
In late January 37 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) operating in Georgia called on Parliament not to override the veto. A few days ago close to 60 media organizations urged MPs not to support the amendments to the Law on Broadcasting. The debates took ugly turn when the General Director of “Caucasia TV,” Nino Jangirashvili, and the Parliamentary Speaker were involved in a heated exchange during a committee meeting. Ms Jangirashvili and Rustavi 2 Channel lawyer Tamta Muradashvili left in protest. After the meeting the Speaker stated that "This attack has a political explanation. There is no justification for it. It is wrong to oppose the idea that the public broadcaster should have more social influence. Today, I accused Jangirashvili of lying and that was the real reason why she left the hall. Lies are characteristic of this party." He also added that part of the NGO community is involved in the attack. "They have particular political interests - they are associated with political forces and they are driven by political interest.”
On 21 February the parliament overruled the veto by 83 votes to 13.
The amendment bill relieved the Public Broadcasting Service of its duty to abide by the provisions of the Law on Public Procurement. As a result it will no longer have to subject the purchase of various media products or services to a public tendering process.
The GPB will now also be able to run commercials throughout its entire airtime. Previously this was only permitted during the transmission of sports and international events. The total time allocated to commercials per 24 hours has increased from 30 minutes to 60 minutes. At the same time the 24 minutes of free airtime allocated for social ads has been reduced to 12 minutes. The company will also be able to accept sponsorship for entertainment programs and TV series.
Furthermore, the GPB, whose funding from the budget amounts to 0.14% of the country’s GDP, will no longer be obliged to return unused funds to the state budget. The company will also be allowed to allocate such funds for supporting “start-ups and innovative television, radio and online products, as well as for fostering development of the broadcasting field.” In 2017 the broadcaster received around 46.4 million GEL from the state. In 2016 the figure was 44.5 million. According to this year’s budget state funding of the GPB will be increased by 5.695 million GEL and will amount to 52.100 million GEL.
The GPB management has argued that the amendments would make its work more efficient and increase its independence both financially and politically, while private broadcasters and civil society organizations have claimed that the amendments would harm private channels and allows undue preferential treatment for the Service.
But many actors still disagree. Giorgi Abashishvili, Head of the Presidential Administration, slammed the ruling party for overriding the veto, saying their main aim was not the issue itself but confronting the President.
“Overriding presidential vetoes has become the tradition of the ruling team. By adopting this law risks are created with regard to corruption. And different media outlets are put on an unequal footing. It is unfortunate that the government does not understand this”.
The opposition, private media outlets and NGOs disapprove of these changes to the law, claiming that granting advertising rights to the GPB will harm the media environment of the country. What is more, given the access to advertising revenue now allowed, the broadcaster should no longer receive funding from the state budget.
The fear is that, given the size of the Georgian advertising market, 2 million GEL as revenue for the GPB will shrink the amount available for small TV Channels and media organizations and affect their profitability. One needs to bear in mind that big private TV channels like Rustavi 2, Imedi TV, GDS and Maestro cannot survive through advertising revenue alone. They are subsidised by their owners. Small channel owners are not in a position to do likewise. They will be hit hardest and without additional investment will be forced to shut down.