Just one month after his election as director-general of the Georgian Public Broadcaster, Vasil Maghlaperidze has announced an ambitious three-year (2017-19) program of modernization and reform intended to raise its negligible audience share. Those measures will, however, initially necessitate dismissing an unspecified number of staff and suspending for 11 months all TV and radio programs, apart from newscasts.
Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili has implicitly endorsed those plans on the grounds that the broadcaster has received "millions and millions of laris" from the public purse. "We are not prepared to put up with a product that is uninteresting and old-fashioned" in return, he said.
Of the country's seven most-watched TV channels, the Georgian Public Broadcaster's two channels currently have the smallest audiences.
But while conceding the need for modernization of its facilities and equipment and more effective management, nongovernmental organizations and several members of the broadcaster's oversight board have expressed concern over the planned suspension of most programming for almost one year.
They question whether the suspension of talk shows during the ongoing discussion of planned constitutional amendments and in the run-up to local elections due in the fall of 2017 can be reconciled with the broadcaster's legal obligations to provide objective and in-depth coverage of political developments. The extraparliamentary Free Democrats said the planned shutdown "endangers free speech" and was intended to "silence critical voices."
Maghlaperidze was elected to parliament in 1999 as a candidate for then-Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze's Union of Citizens of Georgia. After the Rose Revolution of November 2003, which swept Shevardnadze from power, he served from 2005-08 as governor of the Mtshkheta-Mtianeti district north of Tbilisi under Shevardnadze's successor, Mikheil Saakashvili.
Most recently, he worked for the private GDS TV station, which is owned by the family of Bidzina Ivanishvili, whose Georgian Dream–Democratic Georgia party defeated Saakashvili's United National Movement in the parliamentary elections of 2012 and 2016.
Maghlaperidze was elected director-general of the Georgian Public Broadcaster in early January from a short list of five candidates. He did not at that time make any mention of the planned reforms, which he unveiled at a press conference on February 6.
Announcing the reform plans, Maghlaperidze cited low audience figures and said that the suspension of programming was necessary in order "to create the financial and elementary technical-material base" that the broadcaster, unlike other TV stations, does not have and without which, he argued, it will prove unable to fulfill its purpose.
That statement raises the question, subsequently posed by several commentators, of how the 40 million laris ($15.18 million at current exchange rates) the broadcaster has received annually over the past decade was spent. Last year, just 3 percent of the budget was spent on technology, 60 percent on salaries and administrative expenses, and the remainder for unspecified other purposes. Meanwhile, valuable archive footage is being lost as there is allegedly no money for digitalization.
Maghlaperidze initially said he welcomed criticism of his proposals and alternative suggestions and would gladly step down as director-general if an alternative plan was advanced that would avoid the need to suspend programming. But in an interview with the weekly Kviris Palitra, Maghlaperidze dismissed criticism of his plans as unfounded and implied that such criticism originated with unnamed employees who seek at all costs to preserve their monopoly over decisions concerning programming. He said his sole objective was to make the broadcaster an effective and competitive TV channel and to strip persons he did not name of the opportunity to plunder its financial resources.
Maghlaperidze further claimed that his views on the need for reform coincided with those of the broadcaster's previous management. Maghlaperidze's predecessor, Giorgi Baratashvili, stepped down in November, two years before the end of his term.
At least two members of the broadcaster's eight-person board of trustees have openly criticized Maghlaperidze's plans. Sulkhan Saladze of the Georgian Young Lawyers' Association dismissed them as "totally unacceptable in [their] current form" and said he would not support them.
In January, Saladze had voted against Maghlaperidze's candidacy as "the worst possible choice" for the post of director-general and one that would "call into question the objectivity and independence of the Public Broadcaster." He described Maghlaperidze as "not politically neutral."
Misgivings about the impact of the suspension of programming by the Public Broadcaster in the run-up to the local elections are understandable in light of the planned merger into a single media holding of the hitherto independent TV stations Maestro and Imedi and the Ivanishvili family's GDS. All three reportedly espouse the same editorial policy, avoiding criticism of the ruling GD-DG.
Meanwhile, Georgia's Supreme Court has still not handed down a final ruling in the protracted dispute over the ownership of the TV station Rustavi-2, which unequivocally backs Saakashvili's now divided United National Movement.