Supporting Media Freedom in Georgia

Everyone has the right to freely receive and impart information, to express and impart his or her opinion orally, in writing or by in any other means. Mass media shall be free. Censorship shall be impermissible. Neither the state nor particular individuals shall have the right to monopolize mass media or means of dissemination of information.

Article 24 of Georgia’s constitution contains some of the best freedom of expression protections in the world, yet the country still grapples with media censorship. In May, government security forces used force on at least a dozen reporters while they were covering dispersal of an anti-government demonstration in Tbilisi. While violence, harassment, and intimidation are the most obvious forms of media censorship, financial incentives and regulatory powers have also been used to silence Georgia’s press. In 2010, Reporters Without Borders ranked the country 100 in its press freedom index.

Georgia’s media continues to play an important role. Earlier this summer, the Open Society Georgia Foundation launched an exhibition examining the development of print media in the country. Held at the National Parliamentary Library of Georgia—which houses the most comprehensive collection of newspapers from the last 200 years—the exhibition showcased over 100 photos and original copies of rare and unique publications. On display were Kartuli Gazeti, the first Georgian newspaper; H2SO4, a publication of a literary movement Blue Horns; and materials from the Menshevik and  Soviet press.

Some of these periodicals were on public view for the first time, and the exhibition highlighted the role of political essayists and public figures in the development of Georgian journalism. The event followed the media’s role in the establishment of the Georgian state as well as emphasizing the values that the Georgian print media embraced over the course of two centuries. These two aspects were particularly important as public understanding and support for free media is a crucial component in creating an environment that does not tolerate journalistic censorship.

The event at the National Parliamentary Library was just part of the Open Society Georgia Foundation’s long commitment to media freedom. In fact, in recent years, the foundation has been one of the country’s biggest donors to this cause. Beyond public education, it addresses key challenges such as transparency in media ownership, editorial independence, lack of professionalism, and social media development, among many other issues. The foundation has also supported investigative journalism, the revival of independent radio stations, and the first aggregator of blogs in the Georgian language.

Over the past two years, media advocacy has become key priority for the foundation. Last autumn, with the support of Open Society Georgia Foundation, a group of media and legal experts developed a package of legislative amendments which would make broadcast media ownership more transparent and improve access to public information. The draft was submitted to the Parliament in November 2010, and after months of discussions and repeated pressure by civil society, Parliament passed the legislation—which bans ownership of broadcasters by offshore-registered firms—in April.

That same month, the Open Society Georgia Foundation supported the establishment of the Coalition for Media Advocacy. The coalition brings together 11 watchdog and media organizations, and coordinates their efforts to improve the country’s media environment. The coalition initially focused on transparency, access to information, and the process for issuing or modifying broadcast licenses. More recently, the coalition has responded to violence against journalists during the May 26 street protests; an unplanned financial audit of Media Palitra, one of the largest independent media holdings in Georgia; and the case of five photographers recently detained and charged with espionage.

Press freedom will continue to be a crucial issue for the country, especially with the 2012 Parliamentary elections. It is vital that the media be able to provide pluralistic and unbiased coverage of the most crucial issues facing the country today—from transparent governance to economic challenges to corruption and independence of the judiciary. It is equally vital that the public stand behind journalists.

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