Freedom House, the world's most authoritative organization in the field of measuring democracy, recently rated the Georgian media as "partly free." In fact, Georgia needed just a couple more points in order to slip into the shameful "not free" category.
Except for Georgia and Ukraine, the media in all the post-Soviet countries (not counting, of course, the advanced Baltic states) were rated "not free." However, since Georgia claims to be an essentially European democracy (albeit it with some shortcomings), it cannot accept the "partly free" rating.
In an appearance in Los Angeles last month, President Mikheil Saakashvili admitted clear problems in other areas of democratization (for instance, the independence of the courts), but he said that accusations regarding freedom of speech are "total bullshit." And he criticized RFE/RL (whose president, Jeffrey Gedmin, was moderating Saakashvili's appearance) for disseminating this "bullshit."
In fact, Saakashvili often reacts temperamentally to accusations about restrictions on freedom of speech in Georgia and, apparently, he genuinely considers such charges to be unjust.
So what is the truth? If you equate an unfree press with censorship, then you can understand Saakashvili's objections. The programming of two television channels, Maestro and Kavkasia, comprises mostly talk shows in which guests regularly accuse the government of all conceivable and inconceivable sins. Recently, a second public television channel adopted a C-SPAN-type format and now the most radical opposition figures can speak without any restrictions.
The overwhelming majority of Georgian newspapers can be considered opposed to the government (although about half the population never reads newspapers). Many radio stations specialize in criticizing the government. There are no restrictions to Internet access (except for during a short period after the August 2008 war with Russia during which Russian-language sites were inaccessible). Can that be called "lack of freedom"?
'Partly Free' Press
But critics also have strong arguments. The opposition television channels mentioned above, Maestro and Kavkasia, only broadcast in Tbilisi. Only three channels reach the entire country: the private stations Rustavi-2 and Imedi and Channel One Public Television. All three broadcast openly pro-government newscasts. Although Channel One regularly invites opposition figures to participate in political debates, the more popular Rustavi-2 and Imedi do so much less often. In terms of influence over public opinion, all other media taken together would have a hard time competing with these three national channels.
According to many critics, these three channels do not simply support the government, but are actually controlled by it. In the light of this, the scandal surrounding Imedi's March 13 broadcast of a "fake chronicle" is particularly alarming. In that broadcast, the channel showed a hypothetical scenario involving a Russian invasion of Georgia under the pretext of preventing a civil war. The channel did not adequately inform viewers that the events were fictional and, as a result, a brief mass panic ensued and the station was forced to apologize.
But the political problem is that any Imedi project is taken as an expression of official policy. A Russian website posted a recording of a purported conversation between the station's general director, Giorgi Arveladze (who only recently was the head of the presidential office and, later, a minister), and his deputy in which Arveladze said that "Misha" had approved everything and that in fact he had advised the channel not to put cautioning subtitles on the piece.
Both Arveladze and his deputy have said the recording is a fake. A British company hired by the New Rightists opposition party determined that the recording was genuine, except for the part where "Misha" is mentioned. That portion bore signs of manipulation. The argument about the authenticity of the tape will continue, of course, but the impression that the authorities exercise direct influence over the editorial decisions of the leading channels has been strengthened.
And there are other concerns: the National Telecommunications Commission, which makes many key decisions regarding broadcasting, is insufficiently independent; the ownership of some television companies is opaque (for instance, the company that controls Rustavi-2 is registered in an offshore zone and its ownership is simply unknown); government agencies are often slow to provide, or refuse to provide, information that should legally be publicly available; and so on. All this is important, but Georgia's "partly free" status is mainly based on the openly pro-government policies of the national television channels.
Under such circumstances, conversations about press freedom in Georgia boil down to the problem of the balance between two forms of bias: pro-government and antigovernment. When Imedi was antigovernment (or, as the government's supporters say, when it served as a political tool in the hands of its owner, oligarch Badri Patarkatsishvili), such balance was maintained. But the closure of Imedi under charges that it served to prepare a coup and, after Patarkatsishvili's death, its transfer into the hands of friends of the government did great harm to Georgia's democratic reputation.
However, focusing only on this kind of balance is a mistake. What is just as important is the lack of media outlets that are oriented toward quality, that observe professional journalism standards, that clearly separate analysis and opinion from news reporting, that don't reduce their "analysis" to a collection of rumors and conspiracy theories, and so on. There are such outlets, of course. For instance, recently two news weeklies, the left-leaning "Liberali" and the right-leaning "Tabula," appeared, and both are producing quality journalism. But so far, such media outlets are far from the norm in Georgia.
Ghia Nodia is professor of politics at Ilia State University. The views expressed in this commentary are his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL