• TV news politicized due to government manipulation.
• Opposition-aligned broadcaster obstructed.
7: Percent of Internet penetration nationwide.
While no journalists were killed or imprisoned in Georgia in 2009, press freedom in this small South Caucasus nation stagnated due to persistent state manipulation of news media, particularly television broadcasting. In a speech before the U.N. General Assembly in September, President Mikhail Saakashvili boasted of Georgia’s media pluralism, stating that the country has “27 TV stations.” He failed to mention that most stations have little reach and, notably, that his government and its allies have long sought to control television news content, most recently through aggressive efforts to obstruct the cable affiliates of a station aligned with a leading opponent.
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Saakashvili had enjoyed strong support from the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush, but his government’s ongoing media manipulation eroded his reputation as a democracy builder. During a visit to Georgia in July, U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden urged Saakashvili to make his government more transparent and accountable by fostering independent and professional media. In an October interview with the news agency GHN, Lasha Tugushi, editor of the independent Tbilisi-based daily Rezonansi, said he believed press freedom was declining. “There are no more [national] television debates and discussions, the information programs are worse, and property rights are not regulated and defended,” Tugushi said, referring to the government’s continued encroachment on privately owned media corporations.
The broad contours of the government’s years-long efforts to control national television content are well-documented. The television station Rustavi 2—once the flagship of the democratic movement—rested solidly in pro-government hands in 2009. Authorities first gained control of the station in 2004 through the original owner’s coerced sale to a defense official, then in 2006 through a complicated series of buyouts by government loyalists. Critical coverage was eventually scrubbed on Rustavi 2, which ultimately merged with another formerly independent television station, Mze, under the direction of parliamentary member David Bezhuashvili, a Saakashvili ally. The next venture in free media, Imedi TV, weathered an attempted takeover by police in 2007 over its allegations of government complicity in assassinations. But it lost its independence in 2008 after owner Badri Patarkatsishvili was pressured to give up his shares and flee abroad, where he died of a heart attack. His distant cousin, Georgian-American businessman Joseph Kay, gained control of the station after persuading a Tbilisi court to uphold his management rights. The station took a pro-presidential stance.
In 2009, Maestro TV, a two-year-old satellite station featuring news and entertainment, faced government obstruction as it sought to widen its audience. Maestro had obtained government permission in late 2008 to rebroadcast its programming on dozens of local cable affiliates, an important step in broadening its reach since few Georgian viewers have satellite dishes. Although privately owned, Maestro TV was aligned editorially with opposition leader and former Parliament Speaker Nino Burdzhanadze, and featured programming such as “Cell Number Five,” a talk show in which journalists and politicians vented frustration with Saakashvili.
The Georgian National Communications Commission pushed back in 2009. The agency pressured several local cable affiliates to halt their rebroadcasts of Maestro, going as far as closing some of the stations temporarily for unspecified “technical reasons.” Maestro faced violence as well. In May, unidentified assailants set off a grenade at the station’s offices, blasting out windows and damaging a door but causing no injuries. The station continued operations. Maestro’s founder and general director, Mamuka Glonti, said he believed the blast was intended to prevent the station from airing a program about the 2006 slaying of banker Sandro Girgvliani, the U.S. government-funded Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe reported. The banker was found murdered shortly after an argument in a Tbilisi bar with three senior Interior Ministry officials.
A critical European Union fact-finding report on the August 2008 armed conflict between Russia and Georgia was a failed litmus test for national television. The networks were either silent about the report’s findings or chose to air only conclusions favorable to the Georgian side. The report, written by seasoned diplomat Heidi Tagliavini and issued in October, found that while Russia created various provocations and escalated the war, Georgia bore responsibility for instigating the conflict with its shelling of Tskhinvali. The EU report also called on the media to curb xenophobic sentiments and to provide a balanced view of all sides of the conflict.
In an op-ed piece published in The Guardian of London, the opposition leader Burdzhanadze said administration policies had ensured that coverage of the EU report was one-sided. While opposition voices can get a hearing in newspapers and on cable television, Burdzhanadze said, their impact is diminished due to presidential control over national broadcasting. For two-thirds of the country, national television channels are the only media available, “and all are directed by the president’s inner circle,” he wrote.
In a survey of media developments published on the news Web site Open Democracy, analyst Robin Llewellyn described the politicization of television in Georgia, with broadcasters providing either intensely pro-government or pro-opposition views. “The problem with Georgian broadcasting,” journalist Giorgi Akhvlediani told Llewellyn, “is that we now have a plurality of views, but it is either very pro-government, or very anti-government, with nothing in between.”
The Georgian Orthodox Church, long revered in Georgian society, was drawn into a battle with the media in October as one of Saakashvili’s closest supporters, Tea Tutberidze of the pro-government Liberty Institute, a Western-supported, university-based nonprofit that played a key role in the Rose Revolution, posted satirical videos of Patriarch Ilia II of Georgia on the social networking site Facebook and on the video-sharing site YouTube, animating his image to make it appear he was mouthing attacks on the president. The Georgian patriarchate had earlier criticized Saakashvili for precipitating the war with Russia. Saakashvili denounced the irreverence and sparked fears of censorship by saying he “won’t let anyone misuse the principles of freedom,” local press reports said.
After raging the previous year, a cyberspace war in which Russian hackers were attacking Georgian government and civil society Web sites subsided during much of 2009. The battle re-emerged in August as Russian denial-of-service attacks on a Georgian blog caused hours of outages on the popular social networking site Twitter and a slowdown of Facebook that affected millions of users. Internet access in Georgia is limited mainly to those in the capital, with penetration estimated by the International Research and Exchanges Board at only 7 percent throughout the country.
A Russian reporter was harassed as a result of rivalries between the two countries. On September 18, CPJ urged Georgian authorities to drop trumped-up forgery charges against Besik Pipia, Tbilisi bureau chief for the Russian news agency RIA Novosti. RIA Novosti told CPJ that Pipia’s case coincided with Georgia’s denial of entry to two Russian journalists invited to attend a public forum on post-conflict relations. After CPJ’s advocacy, the case against Pipia was dropped.