With a population of 4.3 million people, Georgia is one of the three states composing the South Caucasus. The breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 gave a major boost to the independent media in Georgia. Some 600 newspapers were registered in the country between 1990 and 2000. An audience hungry for uncensored news and editorial freedom found it in Georgia’s first regularly published independent newspapers, 7 Days and Resonansi, and in Rustavi 2 television, established in 1994. Media soon became one of the most trusted institutions in Georgia, faring consistently high in polls after the Georgian Orthodox Church and the army, as shown in opinion polls by International Republican Institute (IRI).
The Georgian people put high value on the freedom of expression and press. Post-Soviet governments chose to allow independent media. But as media grew more and more critical in their coverage of public affairs, government pressure strengthened.
The 1990s saw most attacks against the independent press and journalists: There were two attempts to shut down Rustavi 2 TV, the killing of a prominent TV anchor, Giorgi Sanaia, and numerous other physical and verbal attacks against journalists. The first real victory won by the budding independent press has been the free and thorough coverage of the rigged parliamentary elections of 2003, leading to the Rose Revolution. Mass protests, steered by Rustavi 2’s coverage of the electoral fraud, deposed of the “neo-patrimonial government” (Laventy, 2008) of President Shevardnadze and brought to power the government of Michael Saakashvili.
The post Rose-Revolution era brought the liberalisation of media legislation, business incentives following strong economic growth but also new challenges. The government took charge of the news agenda. Two TV stations and several newspapers closed down. National TV channels were taken over by businesses close to the government. The violent closure amidst political protests of the oppositional TV station Imedi in November 2007 damaged Georgia’s standing as a country with a fledgling free press. The war with Russia in 2008 further complicated the environment for independent media.
The freedom of the press became one of the pressing issues ahead of the 2012 Parliamentary Elections. The government’s control of the biggest TV stations created uneven and unfair competition among those running for elected office. Under pressure from the opposition parties, media rights activists and international organisations, the government of Saakashvili introduced legislative amendments in the broadcast and election laws to require mandatory distribution of all broadcast signals by cable operators in the pre-election period to ensure access to both government and opposition-leaning outlets. The Parliamentary Elections of 2012 were held in a competitive environment, and according to the US Department of State resulted in the first peaceful, democratic transfer of power since the country’s independence in 1992.
The new government by the Georgian Dream party made steps towards greater freedom in the media by completing the digital switchover in the broadcast sector and removing the licensing requirement for terrestrial broadcasters. However, in the lead-up to the Parliamentary Elections of 2016, the government strengthened its grip over the media. TV stations loyal to the government closed down highly-rated political talk shows for no apparent reason. An ownership dispute case was brought against critical Rustavi 2 TV by one of its former owners in 2015, followed by the freeze of the station’s assets, the protracted litigation, and the Supreme Court ruling to transfer the ownership to the plaintiff in 2017. The case is now at the European Court on Human Rights, which has suspended the Georgian court’s ruling until a final verdict is reached.
TV stations leaning towards the government, namely Maestro, GDS and Imedi, merged their resources in 2017 and are competing for the market share with Rustavi 2. Georgian Public Broadcaster (GPB), which by law is required to offer balanced views, discontinued major talk shows open to opposition voices in 2016. GPB received much criticism for non-transparent hiring and procurement practices, and the initiation of amendments to the Law on Broadcasting to sell advertising and sponsorship, which was previously banned. Commercial TV stations argue that the GPB, which is funded by the taxpayers’ money and therefore has a huge financial advantage over other stations, should not enter the market of commercial advertising.
Pending research on Georgia’s place in the taxonomy of media systems, the country clearly belongs to the system described as “television-centric.” In Georgia, newspaper readership is meager, while TV captures 72 percent of the population, according to the latest poll by the National Democratic Institute (NDI). Most nationally broadcasting TV stations are owned by businesses with strong political ties, resulting in a high degree of political parallelism. Consequently, the media system is highly polarised, reflecting the major political divisions in society. Print press, with its limited circulation, targets the political elites and activists. Print press is independent, as are smaller TV and radio stations. The Internet is free.
While there are no state-sponsored media in Georgia, the government maintains strong formal and informal leverages to control media, primarily economical ones.
The journalistic professionalism is on the rise, supported by the expansion of quality journalism education and stronger self-regulatory practice. Still, journalism values are not widely shared. It is a common practice for journalists to enter politics or, vice versa, for politicians to enter journalism. Editorial policies favoring infotainment and sensationalism are also a major problem, as is the journalists’ lack of familiarity with web technologies and tools.
Regional media have practiced greater independence and ethical standards. But they have been struggling on the business side. Regional media do not reach large audiences, and their share in advertising incomes is meager. Some 15 percent of Georgia’s non-ethnic Georgian population is unable to read Georgian-language press and lacks minority-language media of its own.
The advertising market is small in size, and dominated by television. Print and digital media are affected by the lack of advertising income and the reliance on direct and copy sales. While audience measurement mechanisms exist for big televisions, small regional TV stations, radios, newspapers and magazines cannot accurately measure viewers, listeners and readers. Newspaper and magazines largely rely on copy sales. Web-based advertising is limited but growing. With the exception of a handful of rich TV stations, news organisations are poor and cannot invest in development, such as online distribution. Foreign investors, present in the Eastern Europe, are not interested in Georgia’s media business.
The media are one of the most influential institutions in Georgia, despite its uneven distribution and the audience’s awareness of its political alliances, editorial control and bias (NDI, 2017). Its influence on the political process is presumed to be substantial, and takes many forms. However, the trust in media is dwindling, while ambivalence and skepticism are building up, as shown by time – data from a series of analysis of the Caucasus Barometer for 2011-17. The lack of trust in media does not necessarily translate in more critical use of media sources and verification of facts. NDI polls show that nearly one third of Georgians relies only on one source for public affairs information.