Georgia's President Salome Zurabishvili, seen here speaking to the EU in May 2023, has two weeks to sign or veto a bill expanding government power to sanction broadcast media. (Photo: Reuters/Yves Herman)

Georgian parliament reinstates controversial powers to sanction broadcast media

Stockholm, October 30, 2023—Georgia’s president should veto legislation bolstering the state regulatory body’s powers to sanction broadcast media, and authorities should work with stakeholders to devise a regulatory framework that enjoys broad industry support, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Monday.

On October 19, Georgia’s parliament passed amendments to the country’s broadcasting law extending the Georgian National Communications Commission’s (GNCC) authority to fine or suspend broadcasters for alleged content violations, according to news reports.

The amendments, reviewed by CPJ, reinstate powers of sanction over hate speech granted to GNCC by a December 2022 bill, previously criticized by CPJ, but reversed in June 2023. They also grant the GNCC new powers to fine and suspend broadcasters for alleged “obscenity.”

Under the amendments, the GNCC—whose members are proposed by the government and elected by parliament—would be able to fine broadcasters up to 3% of their income or suspend their licenses for repeat infractions. The local office of anticorruption NGO Transparency International said the changes could become “a punitive lever used against critical media.”

Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili has two weeks to sign or veto the bill; however, parliament can override a presidential veto, Mamuka Andguladze, chair of local trade group Media Advocacy Coalition, told CPJ.

“Once again, Georgian authorities seem to be using the pretext of harmonization with EU legislation to sneak through clauses on media regulation that could have a deeply pernicious effect in Georgia’s polarized environment,” stated Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator, in New York. “President Salome Zurabishvili should veto the broadcast law bill, and authorities should engage in real and meaningful consultation with independent experts and broadcast stakeholders to create a regulatory system that does not risk becoming a weapon in government hands.”

Under Georgia’s existing broadcasting law, complaints over alleged hate speech and obscenity are ruled on exclusively by broadcasters’ own self-regulatory bodies. The current amendments would allow complainants to appeal self-regulatory bodies’ decisions on hate speech to the GNCC, and allow the GNCC to make direct rulings on cases of alleged obscenity—defined by the law as “an action that contradicts the ethical norms established in society and does not have a socio-political, cultural, educational or scientific value.”

Ruling party politicians argue the changes are necessary to align Georgia’s legislation with EU law, in particular the EU’s Audiovisual Media Services Directive (AVMSD), which does not allow hate speech to be subject to broadcaster self-regulation.

Independent rights groups have repeatedly argued that the GNCC is not sufficiently independent from the government to rule on allegations of hate speech, which reports and Andguladze said Georgian authorities often wrongly apply to critical or offensive statements. Allowing the GNCC to rule on loosely defined “obscenity” opens further possibilities for “subjective interpretation and selective use against critical media,” Andguladze said.

Parliament first passed amendments to the law introducing hate speech violations in December 2022, granting GNCC the direct right to rule on them. Following criticism of the law by a Council of Europe Opinion in February 2023, parliament passed further amendments in June, returning regulation of hate speech to broadcaster self-regulation.

In that opinion, experts from the Council of Europe, a human rights organization, stated that the GNCC “cannot be said to be independent” according to Council of Europe standards, and recommended alleged hate speech violations be regulated by a form of “co-regulation”—regulation involving both the state and independent stakeholder or civil society bodies.

Andguladze told CPJ that the latest amendments introduce a system that “looks like co-regulation, but in which co-regulation does not really exist,” adding that an unclear provision in the bill appears to allow the GNCC not only to hear appeals but also to initiate hate speech proceedings against broadcasters. Positive changes enacted in the broadcasting law in June—including the implementation of a Council of Europe recommendation to specify that hate speech does not include “offensive or critical” content—are insufficient to prevent abuse, he said.

Despite the Council of Europe experts having called for a “thorough and systematic” process of consultation with stakeholders, authorities rushed the bill through parliament in expedited form over two days without conducting any consultations with stakeholders, Andguladze added.

On October 27, EU delegation representatives told local media the latest amendments were in line with EU directives but said regulating obscenity is not a requirement of the AVMSD. The European Commission “always emphasized the need for further work regarding the effective independence of the regulator,” the EU representatives said. CPJ emailed the GNCC, the President of Georgia, and Irakli Kobakhidze, leader of Georgia’s parliamentary majority, but did not immediately receive any replies.

Editor’s note: The thirteenth paragraph was updated to correct the organization name.