Politics and Media in Georgia – A Partisan View
by Katherin Machalek
Amid great fanfare, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili appeared at a rally in Tbilisi on April 19 in support of his United National Movement (UNM), which had ruled the country from 2003 until it lost the October 2012 parliamentary elections. Since then, the party has suffered a serious decline in popularity, which it desperately hopes to recover before presidential elections in October 2013. This desperation was captured in news coverage of the April event: pro-UNM media featured members of the party claiming as many as 10,000 supporters at the rally, whereas media affiliated with the new parliamentary majority, the Georgian Dream Movement (GDM), quoted current government officials who estimated that only 5,000-6,000 were present. No reliable figure could be confirmed, since the numbers varied widely depending on the political bent of the news source.
Similar bias was evident in coverage of the demonstrations surrounding Saakashvili’s public address on February 8, when confrontations between supporters of the rival parties resulted in injuries to protesters and at least one representative of the UNM. According to analysis conducted by Transparency International Georgia, television stations that remain under the direction of UNM loyalists focused on attacks against members of the UNM and aggressive behavior of protesters toward the former government, while pro-GDM channels highlighted provocations by UNM members. The coverage reaffirmed that despite the recent political changes in the country, media still present events through a distorted partisan lens. Both incidents reflect ongoing tensions stemming from the uneasy cohabitation of newly elected Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, leader of the GDM, and President Saakashvili, as the struggle for political power spills over into Georgia’s already heavily polarized media landscape.
After months of ruthless campaigning, the GDM surprised the world when it prevailed over the ruling UNM in parliamentary elections in October. The historic results made Ivanishvili prime minister and gave his party the majority of seats in parliament, marking Georgia’s first peaceful transfer of power since independence. However, this remarkable handover of governance has so far done little to depoliticize Georgia’s press environment. While Georgia has fairly democratic media legislation for the region and a wide range of pluralism in opinions, the media have been characterized by heavy political influence and weak journalistic ethics. Under Saakashvili’s UNM-led government, the state increasingly asserted its dominance in the media market, reaching a low point in 2007 and 2008 with extralegal raids on independent and opposition-oriented television stations. The state seized two major television stations with national reach, Rustavi 2 and Imedi TV, and proceeded to shape them into government mouthpieces. Through the use of administrative resources and restrictions against unfriendly media, Saakashvili’s administration also ensured that the two remained the most accessible and popular national television stations in Georgia.
While print and radio news play a minor role in influencing Georgian society, the public continues to turn to television as its main source of information, notwithstanding the fact that most Georgians believe the major stations serve political interests. Therefore, it is only logical that the major political forces in Georgia should view the control of national airwaves as a necessary means to maintain power. Media outlets in turn depend on this political interest, as the advertising market is insufficient to sustain truly independent journalism. It has become a tradition in Georgia for media to align with one political camp or the other in order to survive financially. Ivanishvili was well aware of this fact when he decided to enter politics. One of his early strategic moves was to purchase TV Igrika, which became TV9, to counter the smear campaign that UNM-controlled media had launched against him. The pro-GDM channel saw Ivanishvili’s party through its victory at the polls with the help of leaked video footage of prison abuses that shamed Saakashvili and his party for their failure to reform the justice system.
Since October’s elections, changes have occurred in the Georgian media landscape, including surprising transfers of ownership and the termination of several smaller stations that had supported the former government. On the surface, these changes might suggest a move toward normalization or a balancing out of the previously pro-UNM slant in the country’s mix of outlets. However, on closer examination, the changes appear to confirm media’s continued, if not strengthened, role in the political arena. In fact, the political parties are fortifying their hold on major media outlets in order to adjust to the new political environment, and preparing to continue their ongoing battle for influence in the media.
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