Public Broadcaster

The Saga of the GPB

Merab Basilaia
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The Georgian Public Broadcaster (GPB) was a public TV company until 2005. The law of that time obliged it to cover the government's opinions on this or that issue and promote its interests. We well remember the ire of Eduard Shevardnadze in 2003 because the TV channel failed to perform that task sufficiently well.

Since then, the GPB has followed a difficult path. It may not have developed into a paragon of sharpness and sensationalism, but it succeeded in ensuring somewhat balanced and fair coverage. In fact, in December 2012, the GPB received a prize from the European Broadcasting Union for the most balanced coverage of elections in Europe.

After the October 2012 parliamentary elections, however, the GPB appeared to be among the first institutions that came under attack from those seeking a "reinstatement of justice." Shortly after the elections, a financial inspection of the company was launched. As early as last November, the Chairman of the Parliamentary Defense and Security Committee, Irakli Sesiashvili, said that the financial inspection of the GPB was started because of it "serving the interests of one political party," or, in other words, because he disapproved of the information policy of the channel.

Soon thereafter, Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili offered, in his habitual "candid" manner, a merger of the GPB and another TV company – Channel 9, which was owned by his family – in order, as he put it, to ensure that society "receives a genuine public broadcaster."

This was followed by the saga of legislative amendments to the Georgian Law on Broadcasting. As a result of international criticism, the legislative amendment did not require that the powers of the members of the GPB's Board of Trustees all be terminated immediately, but put this move off until 1 January 2014. This postponement, however, still cuts the terms of the trustees short – in contrast to the recommendations from both international and local organizations about a gradual phasing out of the existing trustees as their respective terms in office expire. According to the new rules for forming the GPB's Board, the number of trustees decreases from 15 to nine, while the right to submit a candidate for the position of trustee to parliament is removed from the president and given to the parliamentary majority, parliamentary minority, the Public Defender and Supreme Council of Adjara. However, the dismissal of the entire Board of Trustees at once sets a precedent that a future parliamentary majority, upon coming to power, may also be tempted to scrap the legacy of its predecessor in one fell swoop.

Theoretically, the reinstatement of justice means a return to the condition that existed before injustice emerged. In case of the GPB, this condition is the (at least de facto) status of a state TV channel. According to the acting Director General of the GPB, Tamaz Tkemaladze, he often consults with the current head of the PR department of the prime minister's office and the former anchor of the state TV company, Koka Kandiashvili, regarding the future of the GPB. Tkemaladze also believes that "one must be blind not to see what Nugzar Popkhadze [the former Georgian Communist Party secretary on ideology and, according to various reports, Ivanishvili's current PR strategist] did for the channel."

Soon thereafter, the two popular political talk shows – Aktsentebi and Dialogi, presented by journalists Eka Kvesitadze and Davit Paichadze, respectively – were closed down. Up to 30 journalists and employees of Channel 9, which the Ivanishvili family closed down as a losing business in August – and which every observer organization assessed as the most unbalanced and biased media outlet in Georgia – moved to the GPB.

All this was followed by a campaign to pressurize members of the GPB's Board of Trustees. According to a statement made by the Board on 9 September, a security officer of the Interior Ministry seconded to the GPB, someone named Tsibadze, was given an office in the company's building and interferes with the editorial policy of the channel. The Chair of the Board of Trustees, Emzar Goguadze, has said that Tsibadze tried to influence him too.

This statement must have been followed by an immediate investigation into the case and the possible arrest of any culprit identified. However, the Interior Ministry did not take heed of this fact and, subsequently, two members of the Board soon resigned, presumably as a result of this pressure.

The civil sector of Georgia, international organizations, and the diplomatic corps keep a close watch on the events unfolding in the GPB. Statements have been released concerning frequent instances of pressure placed on members of the Board of Trustees (the Coalition for Media Advocacy); the lack of legal reaction to such facts and the interference of the head of the prime minister's public relations department with the editorial independence of the channel (Georgian Democracy Initiative); and also the closedown of those political talk shows on the GPB that came under the prime minister's "candid" criticism in the run up to the presidential election (a joint statement made by different non-governmental organizations). Transparency International Georgia called on the government to take into account the recommendation of the Office of the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, which, on the one hand, welcomed planned reforms, but on the other, called on the parliament of Georgia to implement a gradual phasing out of the existing Board, instead of removing its members all at once.

When evaluating the impartiality of journalists, the American media researcher Bill Kovach emphasizes the need of counterbalancing the subjectivity of journalists, as a natural phenomenon, with an objective method. The GPB was one of the first media outlets in Georgia to draw up an in-house Code of Conduct; this rests on internationally recognized journalistic standards and can serve as a measurement of objectivity, as suggested by Kovach. Two people in the Georgian media environment who could in no way be reprimanded for violating the standards established by the Code of Conduct for Broadcasters are Eka Kvesitadze and Davit Paichadze, the presenters of the two political talk shows, Aktsentebi and Dialogue, that were closed down. Neither presenter ever received any complaints or remarks from the GPB's management in this regard.

According to the results of media monitoring conducted under the aegis of the European Union, the GPB was assessed as the most balanced media outlet in Georgia. Hence, if bias is at stake, it is precisely the closedown of these talk shows that can be regarded as a biased and politically motivated move; especially considering that this decision, made by the acting Director General of the channel, came after, and fits in with, the prime minister's criticism of those talk shows for being of a "propagandist" nature. Any assessments of a journalist's activity made by government representatives – be they the prime minister or legislators – cannot be regarded as being more objective than those measurements of universally acknowledged journalistic standards performed by international organizations.

Yet again, the GPB finds itself in a ridiculous situation. It must be run by an inoperative Board of Trustees that cannot take any decision because of a lack of quorum. Furthermore, the "development" of the GPB is entrusted to a board of advisors appointed by the General Director that the Board recently sacked – and the comments of these advisors makes it clear that none of them has shown any interest towards the GPB's programs since 2009. And finally, the GPB is actually run by a person well skilled in the dirtiest art of the Soviet Union – propaganda.

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