While the constitution and law provide for freedom of speech and press, there were credible reports that the government at times restricted both freedom of speech and press.
Freedom of Speech: Individuals were generally free to criticize the government publicly and privately, although a number of persons claimed to have experienced reprisals as a result of preelection pressure by the then ruling UNM party. Some individuals told foreign monitors they were reluctant to discuss, or had stopped discussing, sensitive topics by telephone due to concern about government wiretapping. 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 and government organs 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 the most watched countrywide media outlets remained a problem. 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.” The International Research and Exchanges Board’s Media Sustainability Index 2012, which covered the 2011 calendar year, reported that “partisanship and poor ethical practices pervade mainstream media, while quality news is mainly accessible only to the educated, media-savvy, and urban audiences.” While print media frequently criticized senior government officials during the year, some individuals affiliated with newspapers reported facing pressure and intimidation by the preelection government for doing so.
Few newspapers were commercially viable. According to Transparency International’s 2012 Georgia’s Regional Media report, independent print media struggled to compete with local government-funded newspapers, reported local government pressure on distributors, and had difficulty receiving information from local government officials. For example, Laura Gogoladze, the editor of Chemi Kharagauli, reported that two local government officials threatened the newspaper’s local distributors, who quit their jobs. In addition many local and regional governments allocated significant funds from their budgets to government-controlled newspapers.
Television was the most influential medium and the primary source of information on current events for more than 80 percent of the population. According to Transparency International’s August report Georgia’s Television Landscape, the media were politically polarized, and both the government and the opposition sought to keep a number of television stations, as well as key intermediary companies that broadcasters needed to reach their audience, in their sphere of influence. 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. Before the October elections, all three reportedly had close ties to the government, generally had a progovernment editorial policy, and were the only providers of noncable coverage on a national level.
Before June numerous cable television providers across the country refrained from including pro-opposition channels in their service packages in spite of polling that demonstrated strong public interest. After cable television provider Global TV began offering opposition-affiliated TV9 in April, progovernment stations Rustavi-2 and Imedi TV asked Global TV to discontinue carrying them. On June 29, in an effort to broaden public access to sources of information and in response to a civil society campaign, parliament passed an amendment to the election code known as “must carry, must offer.” The new regulation required that cable providers carry television channels with public value content (e.g., channels of the public broadcaster, local channels, or channels with national news and current affairs programs) in their packages during the official, 60-day preelection period, while television stations must offer their signal to service providers without discriminating against selected companies. Although the legislative mandate expired on September 30, the day before the election, some cable providers continued to carry more pluralistic programming.
On April 30, TV9, financed by GD coalition leader and subsequent prime minister Ivanishvili, went on the air nationwide, broadcasting views critical of the government. Pro-opposition stations Kavkasia and Maestro also expressed views critical of the government. Before the passage of the “must carry” law, the stations’ audience was concentrated in Tbilisi. Their audience reportedly increased from 180,000 to 240,000 after passage of “must carry.”
While TV9 was owned by Prime Minister Ivanishvili’s wife, other key media companies were controlled by relatives or close friends of current or former government officials. In October, shortly after the parliamentary elections, the owners of the Imedi TV television station sold 90 percent of the shares in the station for the symbolic price of three lari ($1.80) to its previous owners, the family of the late Badri Patarkatsishvili, who founded and managed it when it was a pro-opposition channel.
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 because he received income from the advertising company regulated by the agency he headed.
Transparency International reported that, as a result of the 2011 amendments to the broadcasting law requiring public publication of media ownership and disclosure of annual revenues, the availability of information on television station ownership and the financial transparency of stations significantly improved. However, media experts noted that problems remained, including a lack of clarity regarding ownership of the Rustavi-2 television station. In a December report, Transparency International reported the shareholders of several major Georgian telecommunication companies, including the three largest Internet service providers--Caucasus Online, Silknet and Akhali Kselebi--were owned by opaque shell companies. The report noted continued reluctance of telecommunication companies to inform their customers about how their data was collected, stored, managed, and protected and under what conditions information was shared with third parties and authorities.
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 content. In April the Constitutional Court ruled that television stations that transmit their programs although cable networks would no longer require a license from the GNCC. Television stations and service providers still need a license for satellite broadcasts, but there were no prominent cases in which an applicant was denied such a permit. The GNCC issued or renewed five broadcast licenses during the year, including one license to an outlet considered to be pro-opposition.
Violence and Harassment: There were reports during the year of physical and verbal assaults of journalists by police, confiscation of journalists’ cameras by authorities, and intimidation of journalists by government officials due to their reporting. Transparency International’s Georgia’s Regional Media report in June stated that “reports of harassment and intimidation of journalists increased significantly” in connection with the October parliamentary elections.
Journalists affiliated with pro-opposition media outlets reported unequal access to government buildings, politically motivated detentions, telephone threats, and surveillance by unknown persons while covering stories. For example, Gela Mtivlishvili, the head of the online Kakheti and Mtskheta-Mtianeti Information Centers, alleged police detained and beat him in Tianeti on May 20 for taking pictures of the local police station. Although Mtivlishvili reportedly showed police his press credentials, he alleged that police confiscated his camera, destroyed the footage it contained, refused to allow him to call an attorney, kicked him in the stomach, and hit him in the head. A subsequent physical examination at a hospital confirmed a bruise on his head. The Ministry of Internal Affairs asserted the incident was “a clear provocation” by the journalist and denied that police had beaten him or touched his camera.
The public defender called the frequent interference with journalistic activity in the preelection period “troubling” and criticized the inadequate response of law enforcement bodies: “Law enforcement has launched investigations of these cases. However, we have found that these investigations rarely result in someone being held accountable for intimidating, threatening, or harassing journalists.” Transparency International’s June report stated that the “reluctance of law enforcement and other government bodies to investigate, prosecute, and hold accountable individuals who interfere in the work of journalists and intimidate or attack media representatives has resulted in an atmosphere of impunity for attacks against the media.”
Several companies with strategic positions in the television sector faced a broad range of difficulties in the preelection period, including tax audits (Videoscope), damage to equipment during customs clearance (Global TV and TV9), theft of equipment (Studio Monitor), and liens on broadcast licenses (Stereo+). In June and July authorities seized up to 70,000 satellite dishes, receivers, and other equipment from Global TV and 10,000 satellite dishes that Maestro intended to distribute to households in the regions for a very small fee, allegedly as part of a promotional campaign to increase its audience. The Prosecutor’s Office stated it had evidence the antennas were part of a vote-buying scheme for the GD coalition. Civil society groups including GYLA termed the seizures illegal and asked the government to present evidence to substantiate allegations that Global TV and Maestro were acting on behalf of the opposition and seeking to buy votes. On October 5, after the elections, the government permitted Maestro and Global TV to retrieve the seized satellite dishes.
In October the outgoing government again granted a tax reduction for television stations that disproportionately benefitted the progovernment Rustavi-2 and Imedi TV stations. The forgiven tax debt during the year totaled 20 million lari ($12 million). Of this sum, Imedi TV was forgiven 13.6 million lari ($8.2 million), Rustavi-2 4.8 million lari ($2.9 million), and GPB-funded PIK TV 1.5 million lari ($900,000). Transparency International commented that the previous 2010 amnesty provided incentive for nonpayment of taxes, as evidenced by Rustavi-2 and Imedi TV’s new tax debts during 2012, and was a form of government subsidy in exchange for progovernment reporting. Opposition-leaning stations reportedly paid most or all of their taxes due to fear that they would be fined or closed if they did not.
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. The International Research and Exchanges Board’s Media Sustainability Index 2012 reported that self-censorship was “rampant.” Journalists said they censored their reporting to reflect the media owners’ views due to fear of losing their jobs. In one high-profile example, Revaz Sakevarishvili resigned as editor in chief of Forbes Georgia on March 27, alleging that the publication’s owners interfered with his reporting on opposition leader Ivanishvili. The management of Forbes Georgia claimed that Sakevarishvili was dismissed for plagiarism.
Media in the separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia remained tightly restricted by de facto authorities and Russian occupying forces. Mari Otarashvili, an independent journalist in South Ossetia, reported she was threatened on March 20 by Misha Beriandze, a local businessman, for reporting on his political activity in connection with South Ossetian “elections.” An investigation of her alleged blackmail in 2011 by Zurab Pitskhelauri, the recognized governor (in exile) of South Ossetia’s Akhalgori region, continued at year’s end.
Outside of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, there were no government restrictions on access to the Internet or reports that the government monitored e‑mail or Internet chat rooms. Freedom House improved the country’s Internet freedom rating from “partly free” in 2011 to “free” during the year. According to Freedom House, 37 percent of the population had access to the Internet in 2011. High prices for services and inadequate infrastructure remained obstacles to access, particularly for individuals in rural areas or with low incomes. There were no indications of censorship or content being blocked by authorities or Internet service providers. There were no known cases during the year of activists or reporters being questioned or arrested for their online activities.
On October 25, the Constitutional Court ruled that operative investigations of private Internet communication would require a warrant. However, the Ministry of Internal Affairs appeared to have continuing direct access to the technological infrastructure of telecommunication companies, raising concerns regarding continued illegal government surveillance.
Insufficient information was available about Internet freedom in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
There were no government restrictions on cultural events. However, there were reports of academic appointments and dismissals due to political affiliation, especially in the run-up to the October elections. For example, according to parliamentarian Giorgi Tsagareishvili, a Nikozi high school principal, Tamaz Malanashvili, stated in court during wrongful dismissal proceedings that he fired biology teacher Tsisana Javakhishvili because “she doesn’t love [President] Mikheil Saakashvili.”