GPB

The Fight for the Georgian Public Broadcaster

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Over the past three months the situation in terms of media freedom has deteriorated in Georgia. This is the conclusion drawn by the international non-governmental organization Internews Ukraine, which implements the Monitoring of Media Freedom in Eastern Partnership Countries project. The reason for this deterioration, as cited in their report, are the recent events that have unfolded in the Georgian Public Broadcaster (GPB).

The Internews Ukraine study examined the situation over the past three months in Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Belarus. According to the study, Moldova is the leader in the media freedom index among Eastern Partnership countries and is ahead of Georgia by six points. Belarus remains a problematic state with its indicator almost three times lower than that of Moldova and Georgia. In a similar study conducted earlier within the framework of the same project, Georgia topped the list of Eastern Partnership countries in the media freedom index.

As the Georgian partner of the media freedom monitoring project and the director of Green Wave radio, Maka Jakhua, told the internet edition media.ge, developments with the GPB, or more precisely, the cancellation of two political talk shows on the channel just days before the presidential election, adversely affected the final results of the study.

The GPB after the parliamentary elections

The situation in the GPB changed within weeks of the conclusion of the October 2012 parliamentary elections, when the Director General of the GPB, Gia Chanturia, announced his resignation in December.
Members of parliament from the ruling party, including former journalist Eliso Chapidze, called on the GPB's Board of Trustees to refrain from electing a new director general until the adoption of an amendment to the Law of Georgia on Broadcasting, because the amendment would require staffing the Board anew. In spite of this, the Board of Trustees elected Giorgi Baratashvili as the replacement Director General of the GPB. In spring 2013, Giorgi Baratashvili fired the head of the information service Khatuna Berdzenishvili. For her part, Berdzenishvili declared that Baratashvili was acting under the influence of the new government, the Georgian Dream coalition, and hence her dismissal was politically motivated.

Just days later, the Board of Trustees dismissed Giorgi Baratashvili, citing his failure to manage the ensuing crisis as the reason. However, Baratashvili went on to successfully challenge the Board's decision and a court reinstated him to the position of Director General shortly thereafter.

In September 2013, Giorgi Baratashvili was fired yet again, this time around for failing to provide the Board with detailed information on the budgeting and programming of the broadcaster.

Cancelled talk shows

It did not take long for Tamaz Tkemaladze, the newly appointed acting Director General of the GPB, to attract the public attention: several weeks ahead of the presidential election in Georgia, he took two of the GPB's political talk shows, those hosted by journalists Eka Kvesitadze and Davit Paichadze, off the air.

Eka Kvesitadze also assessed this decision as having been politically motivated: a result of the influence that the ruling Georgian Dream coalition had exerted on the GPB. Kvesitadze supported her assertion by the fact that the GPB was employing former journalists of Channel 9 for the GPB's information service. Channel 9 had belonged to Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili's family; the channel was first launched on 30 April 2012 and closed down in late August 2013.

Bidzina Ivanishvili had first voiced his disapproval of GPB's working style when he was in opposition to the previous government of Georgia.

"When we come to power, society will not pay salaries to representatives of the GPB if they do not change that rhetoric which Kvesitadze failed to conceal yesterday," said Bidzina Ivanishvili before the Georgian Dream coalition won the parliamentary election.

Shortly after coming to power, Bidzina Ivanishvili spoke during a press conference about a possible merger of his Channel 9 and the GPB: "If the GPB manages to become a truly public broadcaster, I will give it all the assets of Channel 9 for free, including the building. It would also be good if a team of [Channel 9] journalists move to the GPB in order to save them from becoming unemployed."

Several months after making this statement, Ivanishvili said that it was impossible to either transfer Channel 9's property to the GPB or to convert it into a public broadcaster.

"It would be much better if we focus our attention on the public broadcaster and succeed as much as possible in putting it to the service of society," said Ivanishvili in 2013. In August 2013, he took the decision to close down Channel 9.

When in opposition, representatives of the current government made repeated declarations about the need to free the GPB from the political influence of the United National Movement (UNM), to replace Director General Gia Chanturia and to staff the Board of Trustees anew.

The then opposition viewed Gia Chanturia's participation in the 2008 presidential election campaign of Mikheil Saakashvili as proof of his political bias, though he was appointed as the GPB's Director General in August 2009. Moreover, after being dismissed from the position of the head of the information service in spring 2013, Khatuna Berdzenishvili was appointed as the head of the municipal executive body of the Old Tbilisi district by Tbilisi Mayor Gigi Ugulava.

Amendments to the Law on Broadcasting

Important events for the GPB unfolded in parliament in July 2013. Despite opposition from the parliamentary minority, the majority adopted amendments to the Law of Georgia on Broadcasting. In so doing, parliament even had to override the president's veto of those amendments.

According to the amendments, the GPB's incumbent Board of Trustees will be disbanded after 1 January 2014. Moreover, the number of members on the new board will be cut from the current 15 to nine.
Of those nine members, three will be elected based on nominations from the parliamentary majority, another three will be nominated by other MPs (more than 35 MPs), two other members will be nominated by the Public Defender of Georgia whilst the remaining seat will be taken by the director of the public broadcaster of Adjara.

According to the rule currently in force, the submission of 15 nominees for membership to the GPB's Board of Trustees to parliament was the prerogative of the president, with parliament approving them thereafter. Nevertheless, the candidates submitted by the president included several nominees selected by the opposition, though the latter category never comprised the majority of the Board.

Members of the parliamentary minority, as well as the current Board of Trustees, believe that the new rule for the composition of the Board enhances the chance of politicians gaining influence over the GPB.
In an interview given to Tabula, the chairman of the Board of Trustees, Emzar Goguadze, has said that he clearly sees the current government attempting to gain influence over the broadcaster.

"I see signs of gaining influence. Two members of the Board left at a very strange time. One of them cited fatigue, though over the past three years she attended the meetings of the Board of Trustees twice a month without any problem. How could she become tired? Or, if she got tired, why did she get tired now, at this very critical moment? As regards the second member, true, he had heart problems, but while in hospital no one forced him to attend Board meetings and, consequently, that must not have been a problem. All this gives rise to doubts," Emzar Goguadze said.

The two members who left the Board of Trustees in October 2013 were Eka Mazmishvili and Avtandil Antadze. Emzar Goguadze believes that they took the decision to resign as a result of pressure. Their exit has made the Board defunct. It can no longer take any decision because of the lack of quorum – the Board numbers only seven members now, whilst at least eight members are required to take a decision. From 1 January 2014, this defunct Board will finally be disbanded and a new Board will be elected after the new amendments come into force.

Pressure on the Board of Trustees

Several weeks before the developments mentioned above, Emzar Goguadze declared that Georgian Dream MP Irakli Tripolski threatened the Board of Trustees with dissolution if the Board did not change its decision on the dismissal of the Giorgi Baratashvili as the Director General.

Irakli Tripolski denied that he had made any such threat, dismissing Goguadze's allegation as nonsense.

Meanwhile, Nino Danelia, a member of the Board of Trustees, publicly declared that attempts had been made to force her to withdraw from the Board, though she refrained from identifying the person who made these attempts.

"It is difficult to name persons directly, but the tendency of gaining influence [over the GPB] is obvious. Our political spectrum is not ready to realize that such meddling in the affairs of the media is not beneficial for any country or any government and that may backfire on that political force," Emzar Goguadze noted.

In September 2013, chairman of the Board of Trustees Emzar Goguadze declared that an advisor to the GPB's Director General on security issues, Irakli Tsibadze, indirectly tried to influence him. According to Goguadze, Tsibadze is an employee of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and their covert representative in the GPB, dispatched with the task of maintaining control of the situation on the ground.

Emzar Goguadze told Tabula that the GPB does not pay a salary to Tsibadze. At the same time, however, the Interior Ministry denies that Tsibadze is its employee. Consequently, it is unclear for the chairman of the Board of Trustees what the aim of Irakli Tsibadze's work in the GPB is and whose instructions he is fulfilling.

At a public meeting Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili held with representatives of the media, the editor-in-chief of Rezonansi newspaper, Lasha Tugushi, talked about the presence of security service officers in various entities. He asked the prime minister about when the government intends to abolish this Soviet-era institution, which, as Tugushi put it, is a "shameful stain" on the country. The prime minister publicly admitted that this problem indeed exists.

"You are bringing up a painful topic, Lasha. I cannot reveal everything here, but I had discussions about this in government meetings on two separate occasions. There were both jokes and critical comments made about this issue. I cannot disclose any details, but we are trying to end this practice and will do so in the nearest future. I agree with you, this should not be happening. We will reach maximum transparency in the ministries," Bidzina Ivanishvili said.

Transparency International Georgia appealed to the Ministry of the Interior to investigate the statement made by the GPB's Board of Trustees and to call off its covert supervisors that are in place at various organizations, but the Interior Ministry dismissed the appeal as "not serious."

"The presence of Ministry of Internal Affairs' representatives in independent government entities reflects an approach that once was popular during the Soviet Union and it was used by the government of Eduard Shevardnadze as well as after the Rose Revolution. Furthermore, the authorities appear to have failed to launch an investigation into the allegations of several GPB board members about outside pressure being exerted on them, including, according to the chairman, Emzar Goguadze, by a Ministry of Internal Affair's representative working at the public broadcaster," the statement of Transparency International Georgia read.

According to Transparency International, the Interior Ministry has a representative positioned at the Georgian National Communications Commission (GNCC). His name is Zaza Mazmishvili, but he is nicknamed "the General" by employees of the Commission. Zaza Mazmishvili is listed on the GNCC's website as an adviser to the chairman of the Commission. He started working at the regulator on 1 May 2013 at a time when his direct boss, GNCC Chairman Irakli Chikovani, had not been in the office for several months.

The Interior Ministry has an employee named Zaza Mazmishvili, who filed a public asset declaration in mid-May 2013. As his disclosure form suggests, Mazmishvili worked at the Ministry in 2013 and had not worked for the government the year before because declarations have to be filed by public servants within a month of starting a job. Moreover, a presidential decree from 2002 mentions someone named Zaza Mazmishvili who served as the head of the Military Intelligence Department of Eduard Shevardnadze's Ministry of State Security.

Journalistic corruption

In November 2013, a member of the GPB's Board of Trustees, Nino Danelia, released a document via Facebook in which the acting Director General of GPB, Tamaz Tkemaladze, addresses the chairman of the Lanchkhuti municipality council, Amiran Gigineishvili. This letter discusses a GPB program – "On Both Sides of the Likhi Range," which covers various regions of Georgia – and the production of material for this program and the selection of respondents to use in it.

In the letter Tkemaladze asks the municipality to cover the transportation and accommodation costs of a TV production crew which is to due arrive there, he also agrees upon the content and topics of a series of programs on the regions. In addition, the acting GPB Director General asks Amiran Gigineishvili to inform single-seat MPs from the district about the situation.

Tkemaladze requests that the municipality select respondents, especially, "eloquent respondents, respected and acknowledged people," and "representatives of church intelligentsia." Tkemaladze also asks the chairman of the Lanchkhuti municipality council to fill out a questionnaire enclosed with the letter. According to Tkemaladze, in the event of a positive answer to his requests, the Lanchkhuti district will be "brilliantly portrayed" and "presented to a million-strong TV audience."

Later, Tamaz Tkemaladze explained that this was just a friendly letter to the chairman of the Lanchkhuti municipality.

The Georgian Law on Broadcasting defines a number of obligations for the GPB. Under this law, one of the main obligations of the GPB is to ensure editorial independence of its programs, with fairness and impartiality; and independence from government, political, religious and commercial influence.

Crisis in the GPB

The Tbilisi city court has postponed consideration of a complaint made by the former Director General of the GPB, Giorgi Baratashvili, who is attempting to regain his post for a second time, for an indefinite period of time. The defunct Board of Trustees, meanwhile, has no right to take any decision until 2014.

A member of the Charter of Journalistic Ethics, Zviad Koridze, puts the blame for the crisis created in the GPB on the Board of Trustees. He believes that the dismissal of Baratashvili was a political decision from the Board of Trustees, which resulted in triggering open political antagonism inside the broadcaster.

"Such institutions must not be affected by commotions in the run up to elections and, no matter how much you like or dislike things or persons, one should take decisions proceeding from the desire to maintain normal public processes and the desire for normal state development, unless it concerns an obvious criminal offence," Zviad Koridze told Tabula.

According to Koridze, before October 2012 the GPB served the interests of the UNM, but thereafter the Georgian Dream has made attempts to gain influence over it.

"So far, each and every government force has had the desire to control the GPB. Previously there were attempts at influencing specific journalists, but until now this fight has never taken on such an open form," Zviad Koridze noted.

Before the start of recent changes to the GPB, i.e. before the parliamentary elections of October 2012, the OSCE and EU monitoring missions evaluated the GPB as the most balanced and unbiased broadcaster in Georgia.

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