Georgia's Television Landscape
TV sector remains dominated by politics ahead of Parliamentary elections
The government and the opposition both seek to keep a number of TV stations, as well as key intermediary companies that broadcasters need to reach their audience, in their sphere of influence, a new report by Transparency International Georgia finds.
The introduction of temporary must-carry and must-offer regulation in the pre-election period has been an important positive step, allowing a larger share of the population to access TV stations with news coverage that is critical of the government, balancing the national pro-government channels. Satellite providers are already making use of must-offer rules and now show channels with current affairs programs they were not able to transmit before because the stations refused to cooperate. Until these rules went into force in early August, limited technical reach and access to audiences was a major challenge for stations that do not hold a national terrestrial broadcasting license.
“Policy makers have yet to put the switchover to digital terrestrial broadcasting on the top of their agenda, while time is running short to complete the process by spring 2015”, says Mathias Huter, a Senior Analyst at TI Georgia.
Several companies with strategic positions in the television sector, including those that act as intermediaries between TV channels and their audience, have faced a broad range of difficulties in recent months: The leading investigative TV reporting team, Studio Monitor, had its office robbed and most of its equipment stolen; Videoscope, a company providing video equipment and services, including to TV9 and the Georgian Dream, has been fined after a tax audit; Maestro TV and the service provider Global TV had tens of thousands of satellite antennas seized over vote-buying allegations; Global TV and TV9 have said that technical equipment they imported was damaged while waiting for customs clearance; Stereo+, a company providing transmission infrastructure and services to broadcasters including TV9, had a lien put on broadcasting licenses it holds.Reporters of TV9 have been stalked by anti-opposition activists and faced attempted blackmailing, allegedly by people connected to the Ministry of Interior.
Changes to the Law on Broadcasting, requiring license holders to disclose beneficiary owners, have significantly improved TV ownership transparency. Finances of TV stations have also become more transparent. In the first 4 months of 2012, reported revenues of Imedi and Rustavi 2 decreased, compared to the same period of 2011. Smaller channels including Maestro, Kavkasia, and Channel 25 received significantly higher advertising revenues than in same period of 2011, largely due to political advertising.
- The State Audit Office, the Prosecutor’s office and the judiciary should ensure that all investigations affecting media outlets, or companies that serve as intermediaries between them and media consumers, are conducted in a fair and transparent manner. Any steps taken that affect media outlets or media consumers should be proportionate and taken with the necessary precaution in order to not affect the freedom of the media and citizens’ rights to receive information. While companies in the media sector also have to be accountable for their actions and should not stand above the law, any actions taken against them are likely to be perceived as politically motivated. By presenting all relevant evidence and ensuring a fair and transparent investigation, the authorities can best address concerns over limitation of media freedom and access to information.
- Any attacks, acts of sabotage or incidents that prevent journalists and media workers from carrying out their activities or limit the work of media outlets should be thoroughly investigated by the authorities and be followed up on.
- The GNCC, stakeholders, and civil society organizations should closely monitor the implementation of must-carry and must-offer regulation in the pre-election period. During the time the rules are in effect, the impact of this regulation should be evaluated, and on this basis, a permanent introduction of must-carry and/or must-offer regulation should be given strong consideration by policy makers and the GNCC, allowing for a continuation of this regulation on and after Election Day.
- Cable TV operators should continue to include channels that have been granted must-carry status in the pre-election period in their packages voluntarily after the regulation ends the day before the elections and refrain from self-censorship by not offering channels critical to the authorities. Taking critical TV stations out of cable packages on Election Day might contribute to political destabilization if consumers feel cut off from access to information.
- The new Parliament should introduce a proposal to change the status of Adjara TV and to potentially merge the station with the Georgian Public Broadcaster. Frequencies used by Adjara TV should be allocated to the GPB and/or be made available to interested private TV stations through a competitive process.
- In order to improve the transparency of license holders’ ownership and their finances, the GNCC should consider creating a user-friendly database in which it regularly and pro-actively publishes financial data (currently only available on request) and ownership information (only scanned documents are available online).
- TV stations and their executives, producers, reporters and media workers should aim to provide their audiences with fair, professional and non-partisan current affairs coverage ahead of the elections and to act in line with self-regulatory mechanisms such as the Ethics Charter and the Code of Conduct for Broadcasters.
- TV stations should consider publishing of their financial data – including contributions from their shareholders – online and, if financially feasible, have their finances audited. Outlets should use financial transparency as a tool to build trust with audiences and stakeholders.
- The Georgian Public Broadcaster should take steps to strengthen its profile as a truly politically independent organization that is serving the Georgian people rather than the government. To achieve this, the GPB should consider introducing an investigative reporting magazine and a show representing consumer interests vis-à-vis the private sector. Furthermore, the GPB should also take steps to increase its technical reach and seek to reach as many Georgians as possible through a broad range of technical platforms, while further increasing efforts to become more accountable and responsive to its audience.