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Monday 22 January 2018

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Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili (file photo)

Responding to concerns voiced by privately-owned TV stations and civil society organizations, Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili announced on January 15 that he has vetoed amendments to the law regulating the Public Broadcaster passed by parliament in the third and final reading on December 22.

Private TV stations and civil society organizations had criticized the proposed changes as creating unfair conditions for the Public Broadcaster, which has only a minuscule audience share, to the detriment of smaller privately owned TV channels.

The amendments were drafted by a group of 13 lawmakers from the ruling Georgian Dream party. As summarized by Civil.ge, they envisage exempting the Public Broadcaster from the existing requirement to announce tenders for products or services; allow it to increase the duration of paid commercials broadcast within the space of 24 hours on working days from 30 to 60 minutes; abolish the requirement that it return unspent funds to the state budget at the end of the year; and reduce the powers of the broadcaster's nine-member oversight board.

Announcing his veto, Margvelashvili focused on just two of the proposed changes. He singled out as "problematic" the provision enabling the Public Broadcaster to air more commercials, pointing out that advertising is the life-blood of smaller private TV channels. Increasing the amount of airtime the Public Broadcaster may devote to paid commercials, Margvelashvili continued, thus risks undermining media diversity, which he described as "an important value for Georgians and Georgian democracy."

Margvelashvili also criticized the exemption of the Public Broadcaster from compliance with the Law On State Procurement as "the removal of regulations intended to ensure that taxpayers' money is spent economically and transparently." He said that while he fully agrees that the latter legislation needs amending in terms of the procurement of intellectual property, and should be brought into line with EU guidelines, the amendment in question fails to do so.

In conclusion, Margvelashvili expressed the hope that parliament would ponder his objections and make a decision that will, on the one hand, preserve media diversity and healthy competition, and on the other, ensure transparency in the spending by the Public Broadcaster of budget funds, InterPressNews reported.

'Unfair Advantages'

Margvelashvili's arguments echo criticisms by media professionals during the parliament debate on the bill that they grant unfair financial advantages to the Public Broadcaster and consequently pose a threat to the survival of smaller TV channels, and thus, by extension, to media pluralism.

Lasha Tughushi, who is chief editor of the newspaper Rezonansi, described the bill as "bad, it opens the door to corruption, destroys the advertising market, is directed against commercial channels, and cannot in any way help the Public Broadcaster," InterPressNews.ge reported.

The same news portal similarly quoted Ketevan Mtskhiladze, a member of the Public Broadcaster's oversight board, as admitting that given the advertising market is shrinking, granting the Public Broadcaster the right to air more paid advertisements would negatively affect private TV stations.

Public Broadcaster General Director Vasil Maghlaperidze denied this, however. "Don't paint a tragic situation in which we are trying to deprive someone of their livelihood," InterPressNews.ge quoted him as saying. "Media pluralism is a universal gain and essential for every citizen."

Georgia's Public Broadcaster only has a tiny share of the TV market. (file photo)
Georgia's Public Broadcaster only has a tiny share of the TV market. (file photo)

The parliamentary opposition, too, categorically rejects the bill. Roman Gotsiridze (United National Movement) protested last month that "we don't need a monster controlled by the state that consumes 50 million [laris, $19.68 million] and has a popularity rating that doesn't exceed 0.3 percent,"
while his party colleague Giga Bokeria advocated renaming the bill "On State Television."

Even within the ruling Georgian Dream parliament faction the amendments do not enjoy broad support. Meeting on December 20, members of the parliament's Sector Economy and Economic Policy Committee unanimously withheld their formal approval of them. Roman Kakulia, who chairs that committee, branded the bill "unfair." He said he would like to see the Public Broadcaster develop successfully "on the basis of justice and the principles of economic development declared by our team. Healthy competition is the main foundation on which our main economic principles are based."

'Risk Of Double Standards'

Kakulia went on to point out that the Public Broadcaster already enjoys a huge advantage in terms of the sums which it receives in state funding, and that allowing it to increase the amount of advertising it airs "is not a fair decision with regard to other TV channels, especially small ones."

As for the legal provision that the Public Broadcaster may allocate budget funds to support start-ups and innovative television, Kakulia argued that it creates the risk of double standards, and that the government should treat all such commercial projects equally.

Just 63 of the 150 lawmakers endorsed the bill in the final reading; three abstained.

President Margvelashvili met separately on December 18 (between the second and final readings of the bill) with representatives of commercial TV channels and civil society organizations, and with members of the Public Broadcaster's oversight board. He reassured the former group that he would raise their concerns with the board, but gave no indication whether he would veto the bill.

Maghlaperidze for his part said he and other board members tried to explain to the president precisely what their plans are, and how their opponents are distorting the essence of the amendments.

Maghlaperidze further claimed that the provision exempting the broadcaster from the need to announce tenders -- which media expert Zviad Koridze believes will facilitate corrupt practice -- has been misrepresented, and will apply only to creative programming. "We shouldn't set about acquiring programming and films the way you declare a tender for cement or air conditioners," InterPressNews.ge quoted him as saying.

Parliament speaker Irakli Kobakhidze, who crossed swords time and again last year with Margvelashvili during the drafting and adoption of constitutional amendments, said lawmakers will review the amendments in light of Margvelashvili's stated objections. At the same time, he stressed that the amendments were intended to address the problem that the Public Broadcaster's rating is very low. The Public Broadcaster announced in early 2017 an ambitious three-year modernization program intended to address that problem.

Nino Djangirashvili, who is general director of the private TV channel Kavkasia, expressed the hope that lawmakers will avail themselves of the opportunity to amend the bill in light of Margvelashvili's comments which, she pointed out, are no harsher than the criticisms expressed last month by parliament committee chair Kakulia. But senior Georgia Dream lawmaker Gia Volsky is already on record as saying he thinks parliament will ignore the veto. Volsky said Margvelashvili "went beyond professional analysis and took a political position.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.
Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov (file photo)

Citing his oversight of "an administration involved in disappearances and extrajudicial killings," the U.S. Treasury imposed sanctions on Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov on December 20 within the framework of the so-called Magnitsky Act of 2012, which provides for sanctions against Russians implicated in serious human rights abuses.

Over the past two years, Russian rights organizations have registered a steady and alarming increase in the number of Chechens -- both men and women -- detained or abducted by security personnel, many of whom subsequently disappeared without trace. In January 2016, Memorial reported that at least 24 people had been apprehended during the previous three months, one of whom had since been found dead.

Two months ago, the news portal Caucasian Knot estimated that no fewer than 43 people had been reported missing by their families in Chechnya since the start of the year. A further seven abductions were reported in late November.

Human rights organizations believe the total figure is far higher, given that relatives of the disappeared might be afraid of incurring Kadyrov's wrath by reporting the abductions to the police and demanding a formal inquiry. Some individuals who have done so appear to have been pressured to withdraw their claims in front of TV cameras and apologize for impugning the security services.

That reluctance, and the obstructions and reprisals experienced by human rights organizations seeking to help victims and their relatives, render it impossible to calculate the precise dimensions of such abuses, Institute of Analysis and Conflict Prevention Director Yekaterina Sokiryanskaya told Caucasian Knot in late October.

Toxic Legacy

Enforced disappearances are part of the toxic legacy of Russia’s two military campaigns in Chechnya in the 1990s. In a briefing paper published in March 2005, Human Rights Watch (HRW) estimated the number of such disappearances between late 1999 and early 2005 at between 3,000 and 5,000, and described the practice as follows:

An enforced disappearance takes place when a person is taken into custody by state agents, and the authorities subsequently deny that the person is in their custody or conceal the victim's whereabouts or fate in a way that places the victim beyond the protection of the law. Often victims of 'disappearances' also suffer torture or execution. Typically those responsible for 'disappearances' will try to avoid being called to account through cover-ups and by spreading misleading information.

HRW further argued that the scale of such disappearances in Chechnya at that time was so widespread or systematic as to meet the definition of a "crime against humanity" enshrined in the UN Declaration On The Protection Of Persons From Forced Disappearances.

Following the killing in 2005 of Chechen resistance commander Aslan Maskhadov, the incidence of enforced disappearances fell sharply. While HRW had documented the disappearance of 44 men between late December 2002 and late February 2003 -- an average of three per week -- Chechen human rights ombudsman Nurdi Nukhazhiyev claimed in 2008 that not a single such incident had been reported during the first four months of the year. (Nukhazhiyev also cited a figure of 4,300 disappearances since the start of the first war in late 1994.)

Russian human rights activist Natalya Estemirova was found dead in Ingushetia in July 2009, hours after being abducted in the Chechen capital, Grozny.
Russian human rights activist Natalya Estemirova was found dead in Ingushetia in July 2009, hours after being abducted in the Chechen capital, Grozny.

That is not to say, however, that the practice fell into abeyance: Natalya Estemirova, who represented the Moscow-based human rights watchdog Memorial in Grozny, had been investigating the suspected involvement of Chechen police and security personnel in such disappearances in the days before she was murdered in July 2009.

The new upsurge in enforced disappearances, which Caucasian Knot described as "systematic," differs from that of the early 2000s in two key respects.

First, whereas the overwhelming majority of wartime and postwar disappearances were purportedly the work of the federal forces Moscow dispatched to Chechnya to combat "international terrorism," today the perpetrators are being blamed on the police and security units subordinate to Kadyrov.

And second, whereas the earlier wave was seemingly indiscriminate, over the past two years the security services appear to have been targeting primarily young men suspected of sympathizing with the extremist group Islamic State (IS) but also suspected drug dealers and men believed to be gay.

Memorial and the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta independently compiled lists of individuals apprehended in the wake of the attacks on police officers in Grozny almost a year ago. A Novaya Gazeta article listing 31 people apprehended, 14 of whom were reportedly summarily executed during the night of January 26-27, generated so much negative publicity that the Kremlin dispatched Russian human rights ombudsman Tatyana Moskalkova to Grozny in September to investigate. She failed to corroborate those reports.

Veteran human rights campaigner Svetlana Gannushkina recently told Caucasian Knot that only the Kremlin can prevail upon the Chechen authorities to put an end to enforced disappearances and similar human rights violations. Whether the sanctions imposed by the U.S. Treasury on Kadyrov will result in such pressure remains to be seen.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.

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About This Blog

This blog presents analyst Liz Fuller's personal take on events in the region, following on from her work in the "RFE/RL Caucasus Report." It also aims, to borrow a metaphor from Tom de Waal, to act as a smoke detector, focusing attention on potential conflict situations and crises throughout the region. The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.

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