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Georgian Election Spotlight II


Georgian Election Spotlight  is your source for weekly analysis of everything election related. Our media and election experts will break down the week’s most important developments and offer succinct analyses of Georgia’s nuanced political issues.

Today, we’re covering smear campaigns against the critical mediathe mounting pressure on journalists in the run up to the election, and the media’s lack of access to information. 

Smear campaigns launched against the critical media aim to silence opponents 

Much like in previous election cycles, Georgia’s media and information space has become increasingly polarized and aggressive in recent months, leaving little room for constructive debate.  In addition to the growing tension in the public space, the ruling Georgian Dream (GD) party, with the assistance of the Central Election Commission (CEC), has embarked on a smear campaign aimed at discrediting critical media outlets.  

Insults against the media have become an integral part of the Georgian Dream party’s election campaign. On August 3, Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili asserted that most opposition TV channels and politicians aim to “zombify” the public by “artificially created everyday crises, sabotage, blackmailing and plotting conspiracies against their people and the country.”  

In response to the recent leak of secretly recorded materials, GD’s party chair, Irakli Kobakhidze, accused critical media outlets of “creating an illusion” of illegal surveillance in the country through their coverage. He further characterized the director of Mtavari Arkhi (Nika Garamia) and hosts of TV Pirveli (Nodar Meladze, Diana Trapaidze and Inga Grigolia) as “corrupt” with “anti-state and anti-Church aims.”

On September 14, the head of public relations for the ruling party, Shalva Papuashvili, presented the results of the party’s media monitoring report. The presentation, which notably only included three critical TV channels (TV Pirveli, Mtavari Arkhi, and TV Formula), alleged that they all had disseminated hate speech, disinformation, and manipulative coverage in an effort to discredit the government.  

GD’s Secretary for Public Relations, Shalva Papuashvili, presents a media monitoring report on September 14

GD’s Secretary for Public Relations, Shalva Papuashvili, presents a media monitoring report on September 14. Source: Rustavi 2 "Kurier News Program"

The narrative expressed by Papuashvili was echoed in a recent report published by the CEC’s newly launched Information Protection Center. After studying the media’s content, the report concluded: “It can be said that certain media outlets deliberately carry out disinformation campaigns.” It is important to note that most of the accused media organizations are critical broadcasters and independent online outlets, including RFE/RL’s Radio Tavisupleba, Publika.ge, Netgazeti.ge and On.ge.

Some of these media organizations confronted the center, requesting its monitoring methodology and an explanation. The center issued an apology, citing “technical flaws” and “faulty monitoring” and subsequently removed the aforementioned media outlets from its disinformation findings. Publika.ge, Netgazeti.ge and On.ge issued a joint statement, demanding that the CEC issue a retraction.

It is also worth noting that the CEC’s website states that the information center’s activities are supported by the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Following the controversy, USAID clarified that it had terminated its support of the center prior to this election season.

The Communications Commission has also conducted media monitoring during the pre-election period. While the commission’s latest report is not yet publicly available, it is expected that, much like in its monitoring document published last year, the current report will follow GD’s example in censuring the critical media.

Quotable: A joint statement by Publika.ge, Netgazeti.ge and On.ge expressing their dissatisfaction with the recent CEC Information Protection Center’s apology:

“What the CEC calls a flaw and a mistake damages [our] reputation and spreads misinformation. We believe that the statement is vague and does not clearly explain to the interested reader what mistake the CEC made in relation to the signatory media, specifically what it denies and how it corrects the mistake.”

Pressure mounts on the media and journalists as elections near

In the lead up to the 2021 elections, several journalists have resigned (allegedly due to editorial policy changes) and politically motivated legal action has resumed against broadcasters critical of the government.

On September 7, the Supreme Court of Georgia sentenced Davit Kezerashvili, the largest shareholder (51%) of pro-opposition Formula TV,  to five years in prison in absentia. The sentence overruled a 2017 verdict of the court of appeals that acquitted Kezerashvili of embezzlement charges. It is important to note that Kezerashvili, who currently lives outside of Georgia, did not own Formula TV in 2017, which has led to speculation regarding the political motivation behind his recent conviction.

On September 30, the Ministry of Defense announced that it was also pursuing a five million euro lawsuit against Kezerashvili, who formerly served as the defense minister for the United National Movement government. In response to the announcement, the Media Advocacy Coalition released a statement"the legal dispute against the media owner two days before the local elections raises suspicion that the government is trying to harass and influence the media as part of its ongoing campaign against critical media in the country."

Formula TV's general director and journalists make a statement on September 30 in the wake of news that the Ministry of Defense plans to sue Kezerashvili

Formula TV's director and journalists make a statement on September 30 in response to the news that the Ministry of Defense plans to sue Kezerashvili.    Source: Publika.ge

The criminal cases against a former director of Rustavi 2 TV, Nika Gvaramia, and the owner of TV Pirveli were both renewed recently when their court hearings resumed.

Soon after Rustavi 2 ownership contentiously changed hands to a pro-Georgian Dream businessman in 2019, Gvaramia (who currently serves as the director of Mtavari Arkhi) was discharged from his position and indicted on numerous criminal charges. While Gvaramia’s case was never formally dropped, the March 8 political agreement in 2020 resulted in the ruling party's pledge to dismiss politically motivated cases. However, as the municipal elections have neared, his case has been pursued more intensely by prosecutors. Notably, Gvaramia was charged with embezzlement under aggravating circumstances, despite the fact that Georgian legislation does not consider embezzlement a matter of criminal proceedings.

Avtandil Tsereteli, the father of TV Pirveli's founder,  was also charged in 2019 for his alleged involvement in a money laundering case with the founder of TBC Bank and his deputy, who are both current leaders of the opposition party Lelo.

In addition to these politically motivated cases of prosecution against critical media owners, two journalists left Rustavi 2 TV in August. Teona Tskhomelidze and Guram Rogava both justified their decisions by citing the channel’s lack of editorial independence. In July, the Georgian Public Broadcaster (GPB) dismissed journalist Irakli Absandze after he criticized the government’s response to the July 5 and 6 violence. GPB cited a breach of the code of conduct as the grounds for Absandze’s dismissal.

Quotable: Georgian Democracy Initiative’s statement on the legal actions against media owners:

 "We call on the authorities to rethink irreversible threats that the politicized justice poses to the future of Georgia’s development perspectives, to reject the use of justice for political goals, including its use against critical media, to respect the rule of law, and to make sure election related processes take place in a fair environment."

The media’s access to information is being severely limited 

Several broadcasters and online outlets have expressed serious concern over the media’s access to public information. These organizations have noted that the problem has gotten noticeably worse in recent months and is limiting citizens’ access to information in the pre-election period.

From May 1 to August 30, the Information Centers Network (ICN), an organization that manages several regional online media outlets and a community radio, filed 14 administrative complaints with several local administrative bodies regarding the lack of response to their public information requests. The requested information was predominantly related to the activities of local officials, their assets, and their use of state financial programs.

The director of ICN, Gela Mtivlishvili, says that the complaints were not considered despite the expiration of statutory deadlines. “We are compelled to obtain and verify information from unofficial sources. This increases the risk of spreading misinformation and requires more time from journalists to check facts. It is especially problematic that there are no sanctions against restricting the freedom of information.”

Natia Kuprashvili, the director of the Alliance of Regional Broadcasters, an organization that unites 31 TV and radio broadcasters across Georgia’s regions, says that it is difficult to access public information from local administrative bodies and political parties.

Kuprashvili says the main problems lie in the failure of the local self-government bodies to proactively update their websites with mandatory public information. She also notes that there is an absence of designated officers at the local self-government bodies responsible for processing and releasing public information. Furthermore, the government’s website has been under construction for most of the pre-election period, which has hindered journalists’ ability to swiftly access crucial public information.

As for access to local politicians and political party offices: “the problem is created by centralized decision-making practices and centralized information management,” says Kuprashvili. She notes that very often, the representatives of political parties in the regions re-direct journalists to their central offices and party leaders.

Access to public information has been a problem in Georgia for years. In 2014, civil society organizations prepared a draft Freedom of Information Act in agreement with the Ministry of Justice. However, it was never initiated by the government. Currently, access to public information is addressed by the General Administrative Code of Georgia and several other legal and normative acts.

THINGS TO KNOW THIS WEEK

1. Municipal elections will be held tomorrow! Follow all of the updates with OSGF’s Election Media Center on Facebook and Twitter, and make sure to check out our special election edition of the newsletter on Tuesday.

2. Media Development Fund (MDF) presented its report  “Anti-Western Propaganda” this week. The sixth annual report shows the results of media monitoring conducted in 2020 and analyzes anti-Western narratives disseminated by the traditional media, the political class, the clergy, civil organizations and society members.

3. Transparency International (TI Georgia) has released the report "Media - targets of violence and of illegal eavesdropping: assessing the pre-election media environment in Georgia." The report covers the time between the October 2020 parliamentary elections and the recent pre-election period, highlighting the main challenges that the Georgian media currently faces, including attacks and illegal surveillance.

4. The UNDP and EU-funded media monitoring report will be available later this week. You can access it at here

Stay tuned for next week’s special election edition.

 

This newsletter is sponsored by Open Society Georgia Foundation and developed in cooperation with our civil society partners.