REPORT ON WAN-IFRA PRESS FREEDOM MISSION TO GEORGIA
21 TO 22 SEPTEMBER 2009
WAN-IFRA, World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers conducted a two-day press freedom mission to Georgia, on 21 and 22 September 2009. The delegation, composed of Timothy Balding, co-CEO of WAN-IFRA, Bengt Braun, Senior Ambassador and Chairman of the WAN-IFRA Fund for Press Freedom Development, and Mirjana Milosevic, Deputy Director of Press Freedom and Media Development, met with representatives of the civil society, international community and the media sector, including editors and journalists from private print and online publications. The discussions focused on the press freedom situation in the country, press market and business viability of the independent press, and the cases of state interference and pressures on the media. This fact-finding mission was part of the two-tier regional press freedom assessment, with a similar mission undertaken in Azerbaijan on 23 and 24 September 2009.
FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION DETERIORATING
The Georgian Constitution guarantees freedom of expression and prohibits censorship. The Law on Freedom of Opinion and Expression adopted in 2004 defined mechanisms that protect freedom of expression and abolished defamation and libel as criminal acts. Georgia has ratified numerous international and regional human rights instruments, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.
However, five years after the Rose Revolution and a year after the conflict between Georgia and Russia, Georgia is still facing many challenges in the media field. The government is using different means to pressure the media to follow the official agenda, with only marginal media space given to dissenting voices. Individual journalists, especially in regions and rural areas, are occasionally subject to pressure, attacks and harassment from local officials leading to a high degree of self-censorship.
Georgia lacks a comprehensive press freedom and media content monitoring system. There are concerns that the validity of the next election will be compromised if the pressures on media continue, and there is no media space for different political options.
BROADCASTING SECTOR UNDER GOVERNMENT'S INFLUENCE
The authorities have, over the past several years, pressured or even shut down independent television and radio stations that broadcast nationwide, while tolerating independence of those that have fragmented audience and limited influence.
The media scene is dominated by television. According to local sources, 80% of citizens report television as their primary source of news. There are eight privately owned television stations in Tbilisi and one public station, Channel 1. Four of the Tbilisi-based stations have nationwide coverage. After the transfer of ownership of two independent national television stations, Rustavi 2 (in 2004) and Imedi (during the year 2008), currently, all major television stations in Georgia are reportedly controlled or directly influenced by the government.
Television and radio broadcasting is overseen by the Georgian National Communications Commission (GNCC), established in 2000, with five members appointed by the president for six-year terms. The GNCC has made several controversial decisions over the past years that have cast doubt on its competence and impartiality. Georgian Public Broadcasting (GPB) is the is the national public broadcaster of Georgia, and from the day that it was established, GPB was criticized by opposition politicians and journalists for failing to fulfil its mandate to serve the public as a source of objective information.
In contrast however, several regional television stations have achieved some success in rebuffing the government's attempts to contain them, continuing to expose corruption and human rights violations and cover problems of national importance.
NEWSPAPERS FREE BUT IRRELEVANT
Georgia has over 200 registered independent newspapers. Most of the titles are either regional or local, with extremely limited circulation or influence. According to local sources, more than 50% of citizens never read newspapers. The tradition of newspaper reading that existed in the time of Soviet Union was not continued after the independence.
There is no official newspaper circulation data in Georgia. Newspapers themselves give estimates that range from 5,000 to 12,000 copies sold daily by major newspapers. The average price of the newspaper copy is 30 - 50 Euro cents. The sale of Georgian newspapers and magazines has decreased by approximately 50% over the last two years due to the deteriorating purchasing power of the population, the global economic downturn, and the devastating war with Russia.
The quality of printing presses remains low, while newsprint costs have increased due to inflation, suspended trade between Russia and Georgia, and economic sanctions imposed by Russia. Due to high printing costs and high prices of newsprint, newspapers repeatedly consider additional increases in prices and subscription rates, at the risk of losing some of their already scarce readership.
NEWSPAPER DISTRIBUTION AS OBSTACLE
Publishers see distribution as the main problem of newspapers in Georgia. The distributing companies operate without transparent procedures or accountable distribution mechanisms, and distributors do not allow for any intervention and control of the number of newspapers distributed to different locations. Political interference with distribution infrastructure is apparent. 95% of newspapers are sold in the streets, of which 65% are sold through exclusive newspaper stands. Georgia does not have a system of postal mailboxes. The postal system collapsed during the nineties, making subscription an ineffective delivery mechanism. There are fears that the new distribution network that was awarded exclusive locations for newspaper stands in Tbilisi, will monopolise the market and provide a base for pressures and lower sales for the independent press.
CHALLENGES FOR PROFESSIONAL JOURNALISM
Journalists in Georgia are seen as unprofessional, with a low level of ethical awareness. Economic conditions dictate extremely low salaries for journalists, and newspapers find it difficult to maintain capable and professional staff. Therefore, most newspapers hire young and inexperienced journalists who often work without full time contracts.
Local journalists are threatened on a regular basis, and some risk their safety when investigating issues related to local authorities and police wrongdoings. Access to information of public importance is limited.
There has been progress in self-organization of the media on the professional and industry levels. The associations of regional newspapers and regional TV stations are working to increase their support to members, as is the national newspaper association to a lesser extent. Steps also are being taken to form a legitimate professional association for journalists around an ethics charter.
The advertising market is influenced by political actors. It is estimated that 80% of all advertising is dedicated to TV, and that only 1% goes to newspapers. The advertising market in the country is valued at around USD 60 million, but only USD 500,000 is spent on print advertising. Politically neutral media have a good advertising base, however, independent newspapers are often faced with advertisers who are reluctant to buy the advertising. Although the government does not exert direct pressures on advertisers, companies can 'get into trouble' if they advertise with independent media companies. One methods of intimidation is using financial police against companies who are not 'obedient'. Even major advertisers and international companies that are present in the market are reluctant to advertise in newspapers. Aside from problems with distribution, lack of professionalism and advertising pressures are seen as the biggest problems of the Georgian media scene. Georgian newspapers are mostly managed by journalists who have low levels of managerial and sales skills.
DEVELOPMENT OF INTERNET STILL AT AN EARLY STAGE
According to local reports, the Georgian government does not restrict user access to Internet content. Internet is developing slowly in Georgia, though more and more journals and newspapers are acquiring domain names and launching websites. The main reason for this slow development is a lack of knowledge about technology and web tools, however all newspapers have developed basic web pages. With more competition among Internet providers, access has become more affordable both in Tbilisi and the region, and the number of users is increasing steadily. Nonetheless, the overall potential of new media platforms has yet to be fully utilized, with only few media operating effective multimedia websites, limited electronic-only publications, and inadequate "new media" skills among professional journalists.
INTERNATIONAL MEDIA ASSISTANCE EFFORTS
International media development efforts in Georgia were intensive prior to 2003 and the Rose Revolution. International development agencies have implemented fewer media programmes since, under the presumption that the media sphere had sufficiently improved and that there was no need for further support. Between 2004 and 2007, development assistance was focused on supporting state and government institutions and infrastructure. However, during the last three years it became clear that the media field in Georgia still faces many challenges, and the international community is again increasing its engagement in media and civil society. Major emphasis in the following period will be on support for increasing citizens' access to quality content through new media.
WAN-IFRA called for international community and media development agencies to continue assisting the media in Georgia. Recommendations for further actions and assistance include:
- Monitor press freedom situation and react to new developments;
- Work with selected newspapers to improve their newsroom operations and work with editors to enhance the newspaper content and concept, and take into account audience profiles and preferences;
- Advocate for transparent allocation of locations for newspaper distribution systems;
- Advocate for transparent government advertising tenders and ending the pressure on commercial advertisers;
- Raise awareness of commercial advertisers on power of newspaper advertising;
- Work with selected newspapers to develop their web platforms;
- Work with selected newspapers to improve their distribution and subscription;
- Work with selected newspapers to improve their design and printing quality;
- Cooperate with local training institutions to provide media management, marketing and sales training