Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has condemned the Georgian parliament for what it calls measures “restricting media freedom” less than four months before legislative elections in the South Caucasus nation.
In a July 17 statement, the media watchdog accused the parliament -- led by the ruling Georgian Dream party -- of attempting to "control radio and television channels" under the guise of a “crusade against disinformation.”
“Reporters Without Borders denounces the attack on the independence and pluralism of the media,” the Paris-based organization said.
“A few months before an election deadline with high stakes, the atmosphere is stifling for the Georgian opposition media. Under the cover of the fight against disinformation, they are subject to increasingly strict legislation and to judicial pressure directly threatening their editorial choices,” it said.
Georgia ranks 60th out of 180 nations in RSF’s 2020 World Press Freedom Index.
Georgians are set to vote in parliamentary elections in October, but lawmakers have approved several measures that have angered the opposition ahead of the vote.
Georgian Dream, led by billionaire founder Bidzina Ivanishvili, holds three-quarters of the legislature's seats, even though it won just under half of the popular vote, because of an election format that opposition parties insisted unfairly favored the ruling party.
RSF said an amendment to the law governing electronic communications, adopted on July 17, “shows a desire to control radio and television channels” by allowing the appointment of a “special manager” at the head of companies in the audiovisual sector.
RSF said the manager is authorized to “take control” of companies deemed to not be in compliance with the decisions of the National Communications Commission and has the right to appoint and dismiss managers.
'Surveillance And Censorship'
It said the commission was originally designed to be a “strictly operational” organization but has “gradually seen its prerogatives extended to surveillance and censorship.”
RSF said the commission has recently tried to “discredit Netgazeti.ge and Batumelebi, two opposition media, accusing them of disinformation.””
The watchdog also cited the case of TV channel Mtavari Arkhi, led by opposition figure Giorgi Rurua.
Rurua was arrested on November 18 and charged with illegally purchasing, possessing, and carrying a firearm, which he and his supporters have denied. Opposition parties insist that Rurua’s arrest was politically motivated.
RSF said the Georgian secret service has also accused Mtavari Arkhi journalists as part of a "sabotage" investigation of endeavoring "to misinform the population and discredit" those in power.
“The Georgian government must not interfere with the work of newsrooms," RSF Eastern Europe and Central Asia office manager Jeanne Cavelier said.
“Less than four months before the legislative elections, the independence and pluralism of the media are essential for holding a democratic debate.
“We call on the authorities to immediately drop the criminal proceedings against Mtavari Arkhi and promote the reliability of the information rather than attempt to censor the content,” she said.
On July 15, Georgian lawmakers extended amendments to the Law on Public Health through the end of the year, allowing the government to impose restrictions without declaring a state of emergency.
Opposition parties and groups assert that by extending the amendments, the ruling Georgian Dream party is trying to use public health issue to gain control over the parliamentary elections.
The chairman of the parliamentary committee for health care and social issues, Dimitri Khundadze, who presented the amendments, said the decision to prolong these measures s was based on what he called a possible “more devastating” second wave of the COVID-19 outbreak in the South Caucasus nation.