While many of its neighbors in the former Eastern Bloc grew increasingly intolerant of independent journalism, Georgia offered its journalists good news in 1999: the repeal of libel from the country’s penal code, effective in July 2000. Another critical change in civil-libel law requires government officials to prove malicious intent to demonstrate that they have been libeled by a false news report. And the burden of proof in civil-libel cases–most of which are filed by government officials–was shifted from defendants to plaintiffs.
The first draft of the amended penal code included criminal sanctions for insult and increased penalties for offending the president or other officials. Pressure from local and international press freedom advocates prompted Parliament to drop the worst antipress provisions before approving the amended penal code in September.
At that time there were 20 libel suits pending in Georgia. Under the old libel standards, the plaintiff–almost always a government official–prevailed in about 70 percent of the cases, according to Georgian journalists. The new law could open the door for more aggressive reporting, since journalists are far less likely to end up in court for what they publish. But when the changes were approved in September, Supreme Court Justice Nougzar Skhirtladze cautioned that the new standards would not work unless media developed “self-regulating agencies.”
While local media welcomed the libel law changes, journalists continued to complain about police harassment. And financial and technical constraints still limited the independent Georgian press. Of the 100 registered newspapers in Georgia, only about 30 publish with any regularity. Even those media that receive state subsidies–the State TV and Radio Corporation and the newspapers Sakartvelos Respublika and Svobodnaya Gruziya–felt the pinch of Georgia’s late-1998 financial crisis, which left the state unable to pay its subsidies on a regular basis.
President Eduard Shevardnadze’s ruling party won a solid majority in October’s parliamentary elections, and Shevardnadze plans to run for a new term in 2000. His government is generally seen as favorable to press freedom. However, Shevardnadze has limited political influence in several regions of the country. In the autonomous republic of Ajaria, authoritarian leader Aslan Abashidze has eliminated both political opposition and independent media. Two other regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, have declared independence from Georgia, although that status has not been internationally recognized.
Having been ousted by pro-Russian troops, the pro-Georgian Abkhaz leadership set up a government in exile in Tbilisi. Two Abkhaz ministries lashed out at the press, filing separate libel suits against the Tbilisi-based weekly Kavkasioni and its editor, Sozar Subeliani. One case, filed by the exiled minister of state security, came in response to an article by Subeliani alleging the minister’s misconduct during the AbkhazÐGeorgian war. The minister apparently decided not to pursue the charges. In the other case, which was based on the same article, a Tbilisi court ordered Kavkasioni to publish an apology for “damaging the reputation” of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. The paper had not complied by year’s end.