Mikheil Saakashvili: No friend of journalists?
While the new Georgian leadership that came to power in November 2003 has tackled many of the negative phenomena that characterized the Shevardnadze era, one sphere in which conditions have not improved markedly is journalism -- at least in the estimation of many journalists.
Within days of President Eduard Shevardnadze's ouster in November 2003, reprisals were reported against journalists and media outlets that were less than unequivocal in their approval of the regime change. And over the past year, the new leadership has on several occasions targeted individual journalists perceived as loyal to the previous regime, and editors who dare publicize instances of official corruption. It must be admitted, however, that pressure on and reprisals against independent journalists in Georgia are not on the same scale as, for example, in neighboring Azerbaijan.
Television is by far the most popular media in Georgia, as in most former Soviet republics, with the print media reduced to Cinderella status, largely because of the impoverished population's limited spending power. Within weeks of Mikheil Saakashvili's election on 5 January as Georgia's new president, the independent TV stations Imedi, Mze, and Rustavi-2 pulled popular late night talk shows. Opposition Socialist faction head Irakli Mindeli told the parliament bureau on 9 February that the directors of the three companies were warned that if they did not do so, they would "meet the same fate as" Mikhail Khodorkovskii, CEO of Russia's embattled oil giant Yukos, who was arrested in the fall of 2003 on charges of tax evasion. (Imedi is financed by Badri Patarkatsishvili, who was close to Shevardnadze; it and Mze are perceived as "opposition" outlets, while Rustavi-2, which backed Saakashvili during the November 2003 protests that culminated in Shevardnadze's ouster, is perceived as supportive of the new leadership.) Parliament duly set up a working group to investigate those allegations, but it failed to register any political pressure on the three stations, Caucasus Press reported on 24 February.
Two independent TV stations have folded over the past year, however, while a third is in financial difficulties. In February, then Prosecutor-General Irakli Okruashvili accused the Omega group owned by parliament deputy Zaza Okuashvili of evading excise payments totaling 12 million laris ($6.7 million) by counterfeiting excise stamps on smuggled cigarettes, a charge Okuashvili rejected as "absurd." The Omega group included the Iberia television company, the newspaper "Akhali epokha" and a news agency. Okruashvili incurred criticism from then Council of Europe Secretary-General Walter Schwimmer for having the building that housed Omega headquarters cordoned off by police who opened fire on 21 February at journalists employed by Omega who sought to enter the building. In May, a Tbilisi district court ruled that Iberia's property be returned to businessman Kakha Gagloshvili, from whom Okuashvili acquired the station.
In April, businessman Bidzina Ivanishvili unexpectedly announced the closure of his Metskhre Arkhi (Ninth Channel), which two months earlier won a tender for a 10-year nationwide broadcasting license. Ivanishvili did not give any explanation for his decision. Seven months later, most of Mtskhre Arkhi's journalists had still not found alternative employment despite their acknowledged professionalism, according to the daily "Akhali taoba" on 22 November.
In mid-August, Nino Djangirashvili, general director of the independent television station Kavkazia, told a press conference that the authorities were seeking to close it on the grounds of unpaid debts of 14,000 laris for the use of state-owned transmission facilities. Djangirashvili attributed that pressure to the authorities' reluctance to tolerate "a television company with an independent point of view."
The fate of Metskhre Arkhi may simply reflect the pragmatism of some Georgian businessmen who acquire, and then sell, media outlets as part of a larger business empire. But by virtue of television's domination of the media scene, private television stations can also become powerful political instruments. As noted above, Rustavi-2 for years served as the primary opposition media outlet, and played a major role in reporting on the attempted rigging of the 3 November 2003 parliamentary election that served as the catalyst for the popular protests that culminated in Shevardadze's ouster. Yet in the months following the so-called Rose Revolution, Rustavi-2's popularity declined as it was increasingly perceived as the mouthpiece of the new leadership and a weapon in its campaign to denigrate influential survivors from the Shevardnadze era, including Patarkatsishvili. In early summer, Rustavi-2's owner Erosi Kitsmarishvili filed for bankruptcy in a Tbilisi court, but thanks in part to Saakashvili, who according to the daily "Alia" on 29 June argued that the "channel of the victorious" must not be allowed to disappear, the station succeeded in negotiating a deal under which its management is to pay off debts totalling 9 million laris ($5 million) over a period of 15-20 years.
That preferential treatment is in stark contrast to the reprisals meted out to journalists who persist in highlighting official corruption. In early May, Zurab Kachvlashvili, the editor of a local paper published in the eastern Georgian town of Telavi, was attacked by unknown assailants who warned him against continuing to publicize illegal activities by provincial Governor Petre Tsiskarishvili and Telavi administration head Gocha Mamatsashvili. In July, the English-language "Georgian Times" was harassed by state auditors after publishing an article that criticized Tbilisi city prosecutor Valerii Grigalashvili. Also in July, Revaz Okruashvili, editor of the Gori local newspaper "Sakhalkho gazeti" and the author of similar articles criticizing local bigwigs, was arrested after police apparently planted drugs on him during a search. Okruashvili was sentenced to three months' pretrial detention but subsequently released after agreeing to pay a fine.
Neither the closure of some independent television channels nor reprisals of the type described above have impacted on the popular perception, corroborated by international human rights watchdogs such as Freedom House, that the media in Georgia enjoy greater freedom than in most other former Soviet republics. A poll of 442 people summarized by the weekly "Kviris palitra" in early October found that 73 percent of respondents believed that the media now enjoy the same degree or more freedom than under Shevardnadze.
In late June, the Georgian parliament passed new legislation on freedom of speech which, among other things, stipulates that in the event of a libel suit, the journalist responsible for the offending statement is subject to legal action, but not the owner of the media outlet that published or broadcast it. The new law also absolves journalists from responsibility for publishing information designated as a state secret. Then on 23 December, parliament passed a new law on broadcasting intended to provide the legal framework for the transformation of the first channel of state television into a public broadcaster. That broadcaster is to be financed by the state from tax revenues, receiving some 17 million laris in 2005. That provision of the law is one of several protested by the opposition New Rightists parliament faction, which argued that the receipt of state funding would automatically render the new broadcaster vulnerable to government pressure, and that it should be self-financing. The New Rightists also objected to the 1 December decision by the interim commission formed to monitor the creation of the new public broadcaster that any journalists who worked for state television and radio under Shevardnadze, including former Director Zaza Shengelia, should be declared ineligible for employment by the new station.
The owners of independent television stations, for their part, object to the article of the new law which permits the public television station to broadcast commercial advertising. They argue that it should not need to do so in light of the funds it will receive from the budget, and that allowing commercial advertising on that station will deprive them of a crucial source of income.
That financial concession to the new public broadcaster decision is only one of many decisions that, taken together, give the impression that, possibly unintentionally, the new Georgian leadership is failing to deliver on its stated commitment to strengthen media freedom. To a certain extent, that failure may reflect a conflict of interest within the government, as in the case of the ongoing debate over whether the media should pay income tax. Finance Minister Zurab Nogaideli argued on 7 December that as media outlets are exempt from paying value-added tax, they should not be exempt from income tax as well; the following day, President Saakashvili told journalists that unspecified tax privileges are essential to safeguard the media from political pressure.
Some apparent inconsistencies, such as preferential treatment for television over radio and the print media, may be purely fortuitous. For example, Saakashvili pledged at a press conference on 28 September that "as long as I am president, nothing will threaten independent television." And for reasons that the newspaper "Alia" could not explain, only television stations, but no journalists from the print media, were invited to cover President Saakashvili's special press briefing on 23 November, the first anniversary of Shevardnadze's ouster. But in the politicized and still polarized world of Georgian journalism, such decisions inevitably fuel independent journalists' perceptions of persisting inequality and discrimination.