Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The constitution and law provide for freedom of expression, including for the press, and citizens generally were free to exercise this right, although there were allegations the government at times did not adequately safeguard that freedom. During the year journalists, NGOs, and the international community raised serious concerns regarding the environment for media pluralism. The PDO noted in its 2019 report covering 2018 that a healthy media environment and proper statistics on offenses committed against journalists remained an issue.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were very active and expressed a wide variety of views. NGOs continued to criticize the close relationship between the heads of the Georgian Public Broadcaster (GPB) and Georgian National Communications Commission (GNCC) and the ruling party, and GPB’s editorial bias in favor of the ruling party. The OSCE/ODIHR election observation mission reported that during the second round of the 2018 presidential election campaign, the national public broadcaster manifested “a clear bias against the opposition candidate” and did not provide for “editorial independence, fairness and impartiality of programs.” According to the mission, the GNCC did not always conduct oversight transparently and impartially.
By law media outlets are obligated to disclose information concerning their owners. While media ownership transparency allowed consumers to judge the objectivity of news, laws obliging broadcasters to disclose information regarding their financial sources were not fully enforced.
Some media outlets, watchdog groups, and NGOs continued to express concern regarding media pluralism and political influence in media. Concerns persisted regarding government interference with some media outlets. On April 19, for example, Adjara Public Broadcaster (APB) voted to dismiss its general director, citing mishandling of public funds and mismanagement of program priorities, among other things. International monitors, including the ODIHR, had previously considered the APB an impartial media source. On April 13, a group of 13 NGOs and media watchdog organizations released a statement criticizing the outlet’s board for dismissing the general director, stating the decision raised concern for “the country’s democratic development and media freedom record.” On April 22, 10 organizations released another joint statement alleging that the ongoing process at the APB “strengthened doubts about possible political interference” into the board’s decision making. In December journalists protested against the new director, claiming he was interfering in their work and attempting to influence the station’s editorial policy. The PDO stressed that, as a public broadcaster, developments around its reporting affected the country’s general media environment.
In a July 18 judgment on the dispute regarding Rustavi 2’s ownership, the ECHR upheld the Supreme Court’s 2017 decision granting ownership rights to a former owner, Kibar Khalvashi. Leaders from the ruling Georgian Dream Party welcomed the ruling, while opposition politicians expressed concern, especially in light of Khalvashi’s affiliation with the ruling party. Public Defender Nino Lomjaria, civil society representatives, and media experts urged authorities to analyze carefully the ECHR’s ruling before taking further steps. Shortly after the release of the ECHR decision, however, the National Public Registry approved Khalvashi’s registration as Rustavi 2’s owner. Khalvashi subsequently replaced General Director Nika Gvaramia with Paata Salia, who was Khalvashi’s attorney. On December 10, the ECHR issued a final ruling upholding its July decision.
Many media watchers expressed concern regarding the change in management and ownership of Rustavi 2. On July 24, a group of 20 civil society organizations called upon international watchdog groups to “thoroughly monitor” the developments around the station. Some media experts feared a possible shift in Rustavi 2’s editorial bias that may restrict the freedom of the overall media landscape. The PGO summoned former director general Nika Gvaramia and financial director Kakha Damenia for questioning regarding the station’s financial deals back to 2015. On August 20, Salia fired News Department head Nodar Meladze and said he would begin legal action against Meladze and others for their role in signing an allegedly fraudulent contract with an advertising company, through which they allegedly received a financial benefit. A number of journalists resigned the same day, citing expected changes to the station’s critical editorial policy. Rustavi 2 ceased broadcasting news programs on August 20 and resumed on September 25 with new journalists led by a new News Department head, Irakli Imnaishvili. Gvaramia and many journalists who resigned from Rustavi 2 quickly established a new outlet, Mtavari Arkhi, which began broadcasting on September 10. As of October several watchdog groups and opposition politicians assessed that Rustavi 2 remained critical of the government, although it employed milder language.
Violence and Harassment: While crimes against media professionals, citizen reporters, and media outlets were rare, a number of journalists sustained injuries during the June 20-21 protests (see section 2.b., Freedom of Assembly), and some NGOs claimed that media professionals were purposefully targeted. For example, in a June 21 statement, the Georgian Charter of Journalistic Ethics alleged that law enforcement officers had engaged in “target-shooting” journalists despite the fact that they were identifiable as journalists. In its October report on the June 20-21 protests, the Human Rights Center particularly criticized what it termed the use of excessive force against media representatives, noting that in specific instances, law enforcement officers could identify journalists based upon their special vests, badges, and special equipment. According to the Charter of Journalistic Ethics, 39 reporters were among the 240 injured. Multiple local and international organizations, including Reporters without Borders and the OSCE media representative, strongly criticized the use of force by police against journalists and issued statements calling for a prompt investigation into the incidents involving journalists. Public Defender Nino Lomjaria stated the journalists’ injuries would need to be assessed separately and called upon the PGO to open an investigation into interference in the journalists’ professional activities. As of October the PGO was investigating the incidents with journalists as part of the overall case of the alleged disproportionate use of force by police. The PGO questioned injured journalists as witnesses and not as victims, despite requests by GYLA and Transparency International.
There were some reports of harassment against media. For example, TV Pirveli owner Vakhtang Tsereteli accused authorities of seeking to control the independent media outlet. In November after the PGO charged his father, Avtandil Tsereteli, with money laundering in connection with a case against TBC Bank, Vakhtang cited this as one in a series of methods authorities employed during the previous three years to pressure the station. In a joint statement on September 9, 16 NGOs described the criminal case as politically motivated.
Nongovernmental Impact: Media observers, NGO representatives, and opposition politicians alleged that the Georgian Dream Party chair and former prime minister, Bidzina Ivanishvili, exerted a powerful influence over the government and judiciary, including in government actions related to Rustavi 2.
While there was a relatively greater diversity of media in Abkhazia than in South Ossetia, media in both Russian-occupied regions remained restricted by de facto authorities and Russian occupying forces.
Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
The constitution and law provide citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage. In December 2018 a new constitution went into effect that eliminates direct election of the president, among other things. In response to protests June 20-21, Georgian Dream Party chair Bidzina Ivanishvili committed the ruling party to support constitutional amendments to move to a fully proportional parliamentary electoral system in advance of the 2020 parliamentary elections, and to eliminate a threshold requirement for these elections only. On November 14, however, an insufficient number of Georgian Dream parliamentarians supported the required constitutional amendments. Citing the importance of strengthening the country’s multiparty system, opposition political parties and civil society organizations had advocated for a fully proportional system for a number of years. Parliament’s failure to pass the amendments resulted in a series of demonstrations.