The constitution and law provide for freedom of speech and press; however, there were credible reports that the government restricted freedom of speech and press.
Freedom of Speech: Individuals were generally free to criticize the government publicly and privately without reprisal, although there were some notable exceptions. Some individuals told foreign monitors they were reluctant to discuss, or had stopped discussing, sensitive topics by telephone due to concern about government telephone tapping. NGOs reported that a lack of investigation for harassment of human rights defenders diminished dissenting voices and watchdog groups, especially outside of Tbilisi. They also claimed that the government used the legal process to silence critical voices.
Freedom of Press: Although independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views, direct or indirect government influence over media outlets remained a concern. According to Transparency International Georgia’s Georgia National Integrity System Assessment for 2011, while “the country has mostly progressive and liberal laws governing the establishment and operation of media entities, in practice the media remain less transparent, accountable, and independent.” While print media frequently criticized senior government officials during the year, some individuals affiliated with newspapers reported facing pressure and intimidation for doing so. Few newspapers were commercially viable. According to Transparency International’s 2011 Georgian Advertising Market report, opposition-oriented print media struggled to attract advertisements due to limited circulation and reported government pressure on businesses. Batumelebi, an independent local newspaper in Batumi, stated that one potential advertiser cancelled after being told by government officials to do so. Patrons in politics and business typically subsidized newspapers, which were subject to their influence. Journalists reported distribution of print media was further hampered by the establishment of a new kiosk chain in Tbilisi, replacing old kiosks which primarily distributed newspapers. Licenses to rent the new kiosks were largely auctioned to companies selling fast food, cigarettes, and lottery tickets because smaller newspaper distributors could not match their bids.
Television was the most influential medium and the primary source of information on current events for more than 80 percent of the population. The three largest television broadcasters were the state-owned Georgian Public Broadcaster (GPB) and the privately owned Rustavi-2 and Imedi TV, the country’s two most popular stations. All three reportedly had close ties to the government, generally had a progovernment editorial policy, and were the largest providers of coverage on a national level. Pro-opposition stations Kavkasia and Maestro expressed views more critical of the government, but their audience was concentrated in Tbilisi, which constituted 26 percent of the country’s population.
A December report on the Georgian advertising market by Transparency International Georgia stated “the fact that a number of key companies are controlled by relatives or close friends of current government officials or former high-level government/ruling party members raises not only questions about conflicts of interest, but also about competitiveness and political independence….” The report also noted that the head of the Georgia National Communications Commission (GNCC), charged with regulating electronic communication, owned a major advertising agency, which represented a direct conflict of interest.
On April 8, parliament amended the law on broadcasting to provide for transparency of media ownership. The amendments prohibit ownership of broadcasters by offshore-registered firms; require broadcasters to submit an annual revenue breakdown to the GNCC; require the GNCC and broadcasters to make ownership information publicly available on their respective Web sites; and require the GNCC and broadcasters to align ownership structures with the new requirements by January 2012, when the amendments are scheduled to go into effect. The GNCC created a Web site where media ownership information was published and forms and databases were available to collect information on media revenues. By year’s end all major television broadcasters had provided the GNCC with ownership information. Broadcasters were required to provide information on revenues by February 2012.
Violence and Harassment: There were reports during the year of the physical and verbal assault of journalists by police, confiscation of journalists’ cameras by authorities, and intimidation of journalists by government officials due to their reporting. Journalists affiliated with pro-opposition media outlets reported unequal access to government buildings, anonymous telephone threats, and surveillance by unknown people while covering stories.
GYLA reported that security force members injured 24 journalists while dispersing the May 26 protest. The public defender noted that police fired rubber bullets at journalists, verbally and physically abused them, and impeded their work. In many cases mistreatment occurred after journalists presented press credentials to police. GYLA reported nine incidents of illegal seizure of professional equipment from journalists. Journalists alleged that authorities damaged other equipment, and destroyed or erased photographic, video, and audio material. On December 26, the Tbilisi City Court ordered the Ministry of Internal Affairs to reimburse journalists and media organizations 2,302 lari ($1,370) for lost or damaged camcorders and medical treatment for injuries sustained during the May 26 protest.
On July 7, authorities arrested four photographers on charges of spying for Russia but subsequently gave them suspended sentences in a pretrial plea bargain. Media and advocacy groups questioned the lack of transparency and overall handling of the case, in particular how suspects for a crime as serious as espionage could be given suspended sentences. The government responded that the level of cooperation provided by the photographers in identifying other persons engaged in espionage was the basis for the lenient sentence. The lack of government transparency led more than 40 reporters to claim the photographers were targeted for either taking or publishing graphic photographs of police dispersing the May 26 protest. The Ministry of Internal Affairs asserted that recorded wiretaps and taped confessions substantiated the espionage charges. The watchdog group Coalition for Media Advocacy noted that the arrests and lack of transparency in the case triggered a sense of insecurity among the media.
The Revenue Service released information regarding the tax amnesties granted to all television stations in 2010. Progovernment station Rustavi 2, GPB, and independent, Batumi-based station TV25 were the major beneficiaries of the amnesty because they had the highest debt levels.
Censorship and Content Restrictions: Throughout the year NGOs, independent analysts, and journalists accused high-ranking government officials and opposition politicians of influencing editorial and programming decisions through their personal connections with news directors and media executives and by directing advertising using their personal connections with business owners. Transparency International Georgia’s National Integrity System Assessment for 2011 noted that the government “is generally understood to have established control over the country’s most influential television stations through their acquisition by government-friendly businessmen, forcing journalists employed by these stations to practice self-censorship.”
The International Research and Exchanges Board’s Media Sustainability Index 2011, which covered 2010, again reported that partisanship pervaded the news industry. Mainstream television broadcast progovernment content, while smaller outlets promoted opposition viewpoints.
The GNCC issues broadcast licenses as either a “general license” for news and political programming or an “entertainment only” license that strictly limits content, thereby giving the commission substantial control over programming. In 2011 the GNCC began issuing licenses for the first time since 2008. By law the GNCC must issue licenses according to public interest surveys. According to a survey by Tbilisi-based BCG Research published on March 4, Georgian viewers preferred entertainment shows over news programs. Media analysts noted that these findings were inconsistent with survey information from the Caucasus Research Resource Center. The GNCC issued or renewed 25 broadcast licenses in 2011, including several licenses to outlets considered pro-opposition.
Journalists said they self-censored reporting that did not reflect the media owners’ views out of fear of losing their jobs. Authorities also reportedly intimidated journalists into censoring their reports. Gela Mtivlishvili reported that a former prosecutor threatened him by e-mail regarding his reporting. The public defender recommended opening an investigation into the report. Opposition party representatives and media advocates reported that they believed journalists either did not cover or lightly covered events that showed the government in a negative light out of concern that critical pieces would not be aired or could potentially cost them their jobs.
Nongovernment Impact: In November a conflict between the owners of opposition Maestro TV and its managing firm temporarily severely limited Maestro’s broadcasting capability and disrupted all news programs. The channel was one of the country’s few independent broadcasters, and disruption of its regular programming was a source of concern for civil society.
Media in the separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia remained tightly restricted by de facto authorities and Russian occupying forces.
Mari Otarashvili, a journalist for the independent Rezonansi newspaper, reported the Georgian governor (in exile) of the Akhalgori region, Zurab Pitskhelauri, threatened her, attempted to blackmail her, and advised her to write her articles “correctly” on several occasions during the year. Otarashvili was one of the few Georgian journalists reporting in occupied South Ossetia with the permission of de facto authorities, and her reporting was often critical of local government officials.