Regional broadcasters’ suspicious contracts with municipalities
Since the beginning of 2015, various municipalities of Georgia have concluded contracts with a total value of almost GEL 1 million with regional TV stations. Some of the contracts envisage the provision of services that are prohibited by the Law on Broadcasting (e.g. acquisition of airtime, production of programs and news items) and, at the same time, constitute a violation of the norms of journalistic ethics.
Administrative bodies, political parties, officials and public servants may not finance broadcasters, and may not procure their services and finance or co-finance, directly or indirectly, the production of and broadcasting of broadcasters' programs, except as provided for by paragraphs 2 and 3 of this article.
Paragraph 1, Article 661 of the Law on Broadcasting
TI Georgia obtained information about the contracts concluded between municipalities and TV stations from the electronic system of public procurements.
For several of the TV stations, the sums received from municipalities constitute a considerable part of their total incomes. This raises doubts about the independence and impartiality of the TV stations.
Particularly suspicious contracts
Public agencies may only procure services from broadcasters for the purpose of placement of social ads or information that is important for the public. The analysis of the procurement contracts and tender documents has revealed a number of cases where TV stations are obligated to produce news items and programs, to cover events organized by municipalities, and to invite representatives of local authorities to their programs. Procurement of such services contradicts the law. Selecting topics for news items, planning TV programs, and inviting guests are a part of the editorial policy and it is inadmissible to sell them as services.
Kvemo Kartli TV and Radio Company
On March 9, 2016, the Rustavi Municipality signed a contract with a value of GEL 180,000 with Kvemo Kartli TV and Radio Company. According to the contract, the TV station is obligated to broadcast news items (no fewer than 1,000) and videos (no fewer than 3,155) about the activities of the city hall and city council of Rustavi during this year. The tender documents of the same procurement indicate that the supplier is obligated to invite representatives of the city hall and city council to its programs and, in the event of the procurer’s demand, to ensure live reports from events organized by the procurer. A similar contract with the same value had also been concluded between the municipality and the TV station on December 29, 2014. On February 24, 2015, the TV station also concluded a contract with the Gardabani Municipality. The contract with a value of GEL 36,000 envisages the provision of “TV broadcasting and advertising services”.
Rioni TV-Radio Company
In the years 2015-16, the Kutaisi City Hall concluded 13 contracts with a total value of more than GEL 200,000 with Rioni TV-Radio Company. Together with placement of social ads and announcements, these contracts envisage the provision of the following services: coverage of sports and cultural events organized by the city hall, production and broadcasting of talk shows on social issues, production of programs with the aim of popularization of sportspeople, etc. Rioni also rendered such services to the Kharagauli Municipality. Specifically, the contract with a value of GEL 3,500 envisaged production and broadcasting of two 30-minute documentaries about infrastructural projects underway in Kharagauli.
Marneuli TV and the Marneuli Municipality concluded four contracts with a total value of more than GEL 100,000 in the years 2015-16. These contracts envisage the provision of various types of services, including broadcasting of meetings of the town council and the municipal administration and repeated broadcasting of these programs on the following day. The contracts also envisage broadcasting of preliminary announcements.
The Argo TV station, which broadcasts in the Zestaponi Municipality, received GEL 20,000 from this municipality on the basis of a contract concluded on February 17, 2016.
According to the contract, the broadcaster is obligated to cover the meetings and activities of the town council, to ensure the openness of the municipal administration’s activities, and to broadcast materials provided by the press center.
It is important to mention that the contract obligates the company to mobilize journalists for filming as soon as possible, if necessary, and, what is most important, to make changes to the TV station’s program schedule.
Imervizia received a total of four contracts from the municipalities of Chiatura and Sachkhere in the years 2015-16 on the basis of tenders. On the basis of two contracts concluded in 2015, the TV station received GEL 37,890 in 2015 and GEL 53,979 in 2016. The sum received in 2016 exceeds that received in the previous year by GEL 16,089.
In 2015, the Chiatura Municipality purchased the following services from the broadcaster: coverage of meetings of the town council, ensuring the openness of the municipal administration, advertising, coverage/placement of announcements. The Sachkhere Municipality purchased airtime from the broadcaster.
The total income of Imervizia TV in 2015 amounted to GEL 81,296, of which the total sum received from the municipalities equaled its 46.6%.
Imervizia received a total of GEL 91,869 from both municipalities in 2015-16.
In 2015, Gurjaani TV received a tender-based contract with a value of GEL 42,000 from the Gurjaani Municipality for the coverage of meetings and placement of announcements. This amounts to 40% of the income the TV station received in the same year – GEL 102,845.
The TV station received the same amount of money in 2016, though, in this year, production of videos was also added to the list of procured services. In total, Gurjaani TV received GEL 84,000 from the municipality in the years 2015-16.
It is noteworthy that the past year turned out to be especially hard for regional media outlets from financial point of view. They suffered particularly grave financial consequences as a result of the transition to digital broadcasting. The financial problems were aggravated by the unstable economic environment in the country, the instability of the exchange rate of lari, and amendments to the Law on Broadcasting which changed the limits of advertising time and introduced new procedures of sponsorship and product placement.
In a conversation with TI Georgia, Natia Kuprashvili, Head of the Georgian Association of Regional Broadcasters, spoke about the grave financial situation of the regional media. She explained that the State and donors had not provided even a small financial assistance to help the broadcasters in technical retooling.
“The fact that the media receive acquisitions from municipalities or self-government bodies should not be stereotyped. Total prohibition of such acquisitions would not be a right decision, so a mechanism of transparency – procurement on the basis of a tender – was envisaged in the law. Such acquisitions may pose risks if they have an influence on the content of media outlets, which requires relevant monitoring. If such an acquisition involves unedited transmission of meetings of a city council, for example, which broadcasters cannot do with their own resources only, it is a good acquisition, and I see no problems in it. So we cannot say unequivocally that if a media outlet takes money from a municipality, this will definitely have an influence on the content,” said Natia Kuprashvili in a conversation with TI Georgia.