THE GEORGIAN PRESS TODAY
Eka Kvesitadze, Expert, Foundation for Strategic and International Studies (Tbilisi, Georgia)
The Georgian press is in deep crisis. This assessment of Georgian mass media is frequently voiced. After 11 years of independence and free press, there is not a single newspaper that could become a reliable source of information nationwide.
This happened against the background of one of the most liberal environments for the development of media in the former Soviet Union, when most people looked toward Georgia as the most promising new state among the emerging countries. Many expected the press to play a major supporting role in the democratic transition of the Georgian state. However, now it is hard to find an example of a free and truly independent print media outlet with high circulation. While the broadcasting company Rustavi 2 can be considered one such TV outlet, such quality is hard to find in the print media. In the streets of Tbilisi, on the newsstands, you will come across numerous newspapers, but most of them are small scandal-driven papers with low circulation, or weekly high circulation tabloid magazines.
According to classical economics, a market functions best when demand equals supply. How can this principle be applied to the Georgian media? Can the low standard of Georgian media be explained by the fact that little demand exists, or simply, that the reader has no choice?
The circulation of a more or less influential, daily newspaper in Georgia does not exceed seven thousand copies; more often it is just three or four thousand. In a country of five million, just politicians and government officials constitute the main audience. These newspapers have almost no general readership. Consequently, it is difficult to talk about popularity of any newspaper.
There are about 26 newspapers in the country (except for thematic and sports publications, dime newspapers sold in subway and crosswords). Among them there are Rezonansi, Alia, Akhali Taoba, Dilis Gazeti, Droni, Kviris Palitra, Akhali Versia, Asaval-Dasavali, Literaturuli Sakartvelo, Akhali Epoqa, The Georgian Times, Iberia-Spektri, Akhali Meridiani, Akhali 7 Dghe, Tbilisi, etc. There are also 16 Russian and three English language publications, although they are not very popular.
All these publications have their readers, but none of them have managed to become a daily, serious high-circulation national newspaper.
Vicious Cycle of the Georgian Press
Robert Ortega, the Director of the International Center of Journalism in Georgia, says that the low newspaper circulation is directly linked to the low standard of newspapers and to the lack of peoples’ confidence in the press. People do not want to spend money to buy newspapers that do not contain information interesting to the reader. The world as seen from the Parliament and the State Chancellery, and descriptions of intrigues in these two institutions has become exhausted.
The more popular newspapers, which were feeding their reader with such information and with cheap sensations, are losing readers and subsequently, ratings.
In the fall of 2001, the International Center of Journalism, with the assistance of the Eurasia Foundation and USAID, conducted a large-scale survey on the Georgian Press. The survey touched upon the professionalism of journalists, the most widely published topics, trustworthiness of reported information, and some other issues. The survey revealed that 95% of the people surveyed said that they do not trust any of print media outlets.
Please list any newspapers you strongly trust:
||None of them
||Sarke (Mirror), weekly tabloid M
||Kviris Palitra, weekly digest
||Sarbieli, sports newspaper
||Akhali Taoba, daily newspaper
||Rezonansi, daily newspaper
Among the most popular complaints were:
- Journalists do not provide all the facts or enough information;
- They often publish unreliable information;
- They often publish contradictory information;
- The titles of articles do not reflect the content;
- Articles are over-saturated with the opinions of journalists;
- Newspapers employ bad Georgian;
- Printing quality should be higher.
- Reporters are ignorant of the facts on many topics they cover;
- Mutual accusations of politicians are boring, biased and false;
- Newspapers should cover as many different topics as possible.
“Today, the Georgian press is looking at the government, not the general public. This means that society will not get interested in press, until press gets interested in society. Society will not care about press, until press shows only people with ties on their front pages,” says journalist of Radio Liberty Ia Antadze.
The Georgian press’s major problems include lack of professionalism, objectivity and freedom. Under the circumstances, when newspapers do not sell, journalists are not paid; journalists are looking for alternative sources of income. They find such sources in politicians, political parties or individual representatives of government. That means that journalists and publishers in general are accountable not to the reader, but to those who fund them.
“Press in Georgia is weak, newspapers are not truly independent. Mostly, they survive by selling their content—by selling stories—or by writing to suit the needs of so-called ‘invisible’ sponsors. The reason is that the owners and the publishers do not know how to attract readers and advertisers, they do not try to, because for the most part they are comfortable with the status-quo,” says Robert Ortega.
The media, which is not oriented toward public needs, has difficulties in creating and reporting public opinion. The reader does not trust printed articles and sees quite visible sponsors behind them. Therefore, the press in Georgia has become a caste associated with authorities, or simply, their supplement, which in turn, creates problems in influencing social realities.
“During the last 5-6 years public life has been limited to the governing bodies, i.e., parliament, chancellery, ministries, etc. This situation was reflected in the mass media. Georgian newspapers and frequently TV channels are not oriented to the public, but to the political elite. They discuss only the topics interesting to them. A big part of the public cannot understand complicated hints of the journalists. So, media play a greater role in government intrigues than in social processes,” says author David Zurabishvili, a member of one of the most popular NGOs, “Liberty Institute.”
Newspapers that base their activities on such practices have problems with circulation. Low circulation automatically means low salaries. Corrupt and poor newspapers are not attractive to professionals. This is why more professional journalists leave the media and go to NGOs. The most promising young journalists prefer not to develop their careers in the Georgian press, and leave it as soon as they can. So, a vicious cycle has emerged: because of lack of experience, tradition, and a coherent and fair information policy, publishers lost their independence, sources of financing and professional journalists, without which it is impossible to gain credibility. That brings us back to the problem of living at the expense of visible or invisible funders, and to the lack of radical reforms in journalism.
Absence of Demand Or Lack of Management: Why Have Influential and Serious Newspapers Disappeared from the Information Market?
Any press exhibits some problems of low standard, scandalous nature, and sensationalism, but such press, in the absence of any serious print media, leaves no choice for the reader. There is no demarcating line between serious and not-so-serious efforts of the Georgian press. The press that is attractive to politicians is quite yellow and lacks an academic style. Politics does not make the press more serious; rather, the yellow press engages politicians. Today, high-circulation tabloid magazines have portraits of politicians on the cover. This is good publicity for newcomers to politics. To be shown in relatively solid Rezonansi, circulation of which exceeds seven thousand, is not as good for popularity as being shown on tabloid magazine Sarke, the circulation of which, according to the International Center of Journalism in Georgia, is up to 21 thousand copies.
The high circulation of Sarke shows that the Georgian information market performs below its potential. That means that there are readers for serious, academic style newspapers and that low circulation is not caused only by the low purchasing power of the population.
The majority of journalists think that there is already a demand for qualitatively new media both in the population and among politicians. However, all attempts to create such newspapers so far have miserably failed.
The daily newspaper Rezonansi, which was quite popular a few years ago (because it introduced a new, news-oriented journalistic style), still retains its academic profile, but it is popular only in Tbilisi and among government agencies. Apart from the scandalous investigations that pop up from time to time, the content of this newspaper is quite boring. This has caused a reduction in its circulation. Part of the reason for the Rezonansi’s failure is the deterioration of its management.
Mismanagement was the reason behind the problems of other serious newspapers. The once popular 7 Dghe, Droni, and Kavkasioni have disappeared altogether. The closure of the Kavkasioni newspaper several years ago, which had one of the strongest teams of journalists, created a sense that Georgian readers are not interested in serious topics. To avoid the fate of the Kavkasioni, other serious newspapers that also had financial problems decided to become “yellow.” But this was not an ideal solution. However, the former editor of the Kavkasioni, Sozar Subeliani and political observer Ia Antadze cite other reasons.
“At a certain stage, the team of the Kavkasioni concluded that we should put forward our own position. We became a side to the conflict, not the mediators. The newspaper, while clearly stating its position, can play a certain role, but this would be its last breath,” says Antadze.
Sozar Subeliani thinks that taking a side obviously created problems for the newspaper, but still, the bad management was the prime reason for closure.
Good management and large advertising campaigns worked later, when they played crucial role in popularity of the Akhali Versia. But, the success of this newspaper was to a large extent conditioned by the anti-government and anti-Shevardnadze sentiments of the population. What was published in the Akhali Versia about the president’s family and ruling clique was not new to anyone, but good timing and good advertisements made this newspaper a success.
Although the Akhali Versia is a new word in Georgian information market, because of its edition schedule, concentration on only one topic and sensation-based information policy, it cannot be considered an example of a qualitatively new press. However, its influence on public opinion is quite significant.
The Greatest Achievement of Democracy against Fundamental Democratic Values
The free press has a huge role to play in building democracy. At the initial stages of democratization in Georgia, many thought that press would play a special role in strengthening independence and helping to educate people in democratic values. Not only would the press serve as an example of democracy in action, through careful and strenuous objective reporting on political and other issues, but the press would also take on the responsibility of teaching democratic values to the Georgian people. Thus, the press would actively encourage the acceptance of democratic values, such as freedom of press, religion, opinion and individual choice, heretofore inexperienced by the Georgian population.
Inexperienced journalism in Georgia was completely unprepared for this role. It lacked professionalism, erudition and knowledge of democratic values necessary to fulfill this mission.
Most importantly, the sense of statehood and the national interest was as alien to Georgian press as to the whole of Georgian society. It was expected that press would play a crucial role in bringing these ideas to the public, which found itself in a vacuum after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
As for protecting democracy and its fundamental values, here the press has been unable to perform the functions it was expected to perform. One can even say that it worsened the current situation. Newspapers are full of derogatory references such as Dashnaks (Armenians), Cosmopolitans, Masons, etc. Such nicknames are applied to one group of politicians (the so-called political reformers) and NGOs, which are also accused of sympathizing with religious minorities and homosexuals. Such references encourage and further already present anti-ethnic and religious minority sentiment in the Georgian population at large.
The same press exploits the name of the famous 19th century Georgian thinker and author, Ilya Chavchavadze, who is considered the symbol of nationalist thinking in Georgia. This media group acts behind the veil of nationalism, and is trying to create a provincial-fascist mythology about the new Georgian Masons, grant-eaters (NGOs funded by international organizations), and American agents, who advocate “destructive” ideas, such as freedom of religion. According to these journalists, the latter groups are trying to insult orthodox religion, and deprive people of historical Georgian traditions and national identity.
“The reformers and pro-reform media network had the following tasks: to bring Meskhetian Turks back to Georgia, discredit Georgia’s culture and history, and advocate cosmopolitanism and eradication of national identity. However, their futile attempt has failed because the policy they advocated bankrupted the country.” This is an excerpt from a very typical article. A number of similar articles are published in high-circulation daily newspaper Akhali Taoba, which is not the only one advocating neo-fascist ideas. An example of another such fascist press is Literaturuli Sakartvelo, a publication of the Writers’ Union, funded by the state budget.
“The stagnation of nation was completely reflected in Georgian press. Democratic values are as disregarded in the press as in the whole of society,” says director of Tbilisi Bureau of Radio Liberty Tamar Chikovani.
Beyond any doubt, democracy implies pluralism of ideas. Any idea has the right to exist, and any article has the right to be printed. Existence of ideological newspapers would not be a problem in Georgia if they covered a small segment of information market. Unfortunately, such information is presented in low standard articles and used mostly by corrupt media. Such flow of information is so extensive that journalists who represent alternative ideas constitute only a minority. This minority works mostly in NGOs, or organizations like Radio Liberty, which mainly have a small and liberal audience.
A confrontation has already emerged among journalists on the basis of differing worldviews. But this confrontation represents a hidden tension, which peaked during the 2001 October-November anti-government events in Tbilisi, after a government raid on popular TV station Rustavi 2. This cleavage was clearly demonstrated during a State TV Channel talk show at that time. While an “armistice” between the free and government-backed camps of journalists was initiated by the Georgian Orthodox Patriarchy, it was just a symbolic act that did not remove tensions that may inflame at any moment.
Influence of the Press on Georgian Politics
The Georgian press has been developing in quite a liberal environment, especially in comparison with the absence of press freedom in neighboring states: Azerbaijan and Central Asian republics.
In Georgia, besides a few government publications, there are number of independent outlets that are not subject to censorship or direct pressure from the authorities. If one does not take into account the raids on independent media by the paramilitary organization Mkhedrioni in the early nineties, there have been almost no instances of violence against mass media (there was one attempt from the authorities to raid the Rustavi 2 which had grave political consequences that will be discussed below). However, this is the case only in Tbilisi. As for regional press and broadcasting stations, they are totally controlled by local authorities: governors or district administration. The situation is especially difficult in Adjaria. Free press could not flourish under the authoritarian rule in this autonomous republic. The leader of Adjaria Aslan Abashidze closed the only independent channel in Batumi TV-25 after a long battle with a civil society.
But still, it is considered that the degree of freedom of Georgian press is quite high. President Shevardnadze declares that he himself is the guarantor of freedom of press, and says that free press is the biggest achievement of Georgian democracy.
But it has to be mentioned that free press today is more an appearance necessary to add credibility to Shevardnadze’s democratic façade; in reality, the influence of the press on Shevardnadze’s politics is minimal.
Numerous journalistic investigations, which were broadcasted on TV or published in the press, were not followed by any reaction neither from president, nor from law enforcement authorities. Their only reaction was either to kowtow to the press, or harshly criticize it. Little was done to bring about changes in response to the media’s policy concerns.
At the same time, there have been a number of complaints about the press. Journalists often publish unverified, dubious, or provocative articles. It is obvious that journalists lack the sense of responsibility as much as the government officials do. No one punishes bureaucrats for substantiated information against them, but likewise, no one punishes journalists for consistent slander based solely on lies.
There is a big discussion now about adopting a new law on the press. Such a law was adopted when Zviad Gamsakhurdia was president of Georgia. But, this law was still-born. Today, it can be said that the law on press does not exist. Most eager to adopt this law are the president and high-ranking officials. Shevardnadze mentions the non-existence of a press law, particularly when the behavior of the press becomes unbearable for him; so far, however, the law about press has not been submitted to the parliament. Experts think that this law is absolutely unnecessary and it is desirable only to high-ranking bureaucrats, since the law will certainly restrict the amount of publicly available information.
An ethical code for journalists is a completely different case. One does not exist, neither in written nor in unwritten form. The Georgian journalistic school has not created a tradition that could become an unwritten law. There is no universally accepted agreement among Georgian journalists about what can and cannot be published or what the rules of behavior for journalists should be. It is the non-existence of such a code and the existence of completely diverse opinions about fundamental principles of democracy that create tension and covert confrontation within the journalists corps. This is one of the core problems that significantly weakens mass media and makes its influence on Georgian social and political life inconsistent.
However, despite such problems, there have been occasions when media immensely influenced public opinion. If journalists’ investigations do not bring immediate results, in the long-run they still have some impact. For example, the press was instrumental in the lowering of rating of Georgia’s most odious Minister of Interior Affairs, Kakha Targamadze. Articles published in the Rezonansi and Akhali Versia represented the core of the anti-Targamadze campaign.
Targamadze, “the iron man” as he called himself, easily evaded this campaign, and President Shevardnadze simply ignored the accusations against his favorite minister. However, the media campaign still resulted in resignation of Targamadze through public protests of October and November 2001, connected with an attempt to raid the Rustavi 2.
Although civil society in Georgia is not fully established, it has developed sufficiently enough to avoid pressure on the freedom of the press. In October 2001, an intrusion of Ministry of Security agents into Rustavi 2 demanding financial documents catalyzed public outrage, which illustrates the intense public support of mass media freedom. The scenario that worked well in Russia against the NTV channel did not work in Georgia. Public opinion appeared to be more important than the will of the power ministries. In addition to the social outcry, the free media played a crucial role in mounting the large-scale social protest. This is especially true of independent broadcasting company Rustavi 2, which has the highest credibility in population.
The Prospects of the Georgian Press: Trends and Prognoses
“I think that the future [of Georgian press] is bright, in the sense that sooner or later someone is going to understand that there is an enormous market for a really independent, fair newspaper. The first person who understands how to attract readers and advertisers and operate his newspaper as a business in the public interest, is going to make a lot of money by providing Georgia with a useful, trustworthy source of information,” says Ortega. “Western assistance to Georgian press should be limited to training only. Journalists should know how to write in order to be real journalists, and how to turn journalism into an independent, profitable business.”
David Zurabishvili thinks that the most effective Western assistance would be direct investment in mass media or supporting it with grants. Questions concerning the professionalism of journalists will acquire significance only after that.
Anyway, the most important thing at this stage would be to create a school of journalism, which, unfortunately, does not exist now. The faculty of journalism at Tbilisi State University cannot be considered as such. Unfortunately, it continues traditions of Soviet journalism and is not up to modern standards. However, the Georgian Institute of Public Affairs has established a School of Journalism, where foreign journalists are among the teachers. Soon, the demand on young and professional journalists will be acute.
Currently, certain trends have emerged to make serious shifts on the Georgian information market. Established newspapers are dying, while media magnates have emerged, creating media-holdings. That means that competition will become more intense. This factor increases the demand on professionals. The founder of the Rustavi 2, Erosi Kitsmarishvili, is setting up a new independent newspaper. He already owns a profitable broadcasting company, an Internet provider company and a long-distance television company. That allows him to make a substantial investment in the newspaper. Experts say that the newspaper, created by an independent investor, will be of crucial importance for the development of the Georgian free press.
Enlargements of the TV market will probably start after TV stations are obliged to meet certain requirements for getting a license for broadcasting. Not meeting these requirements will result in closure of some smaller stations. This means that only large broadcasting companies will remain on the Georgian information market.
Currently, there are the following broadcasting companies in Georgia: Rustavi 2, Channel 1 and Channel 2 of the State Broadcasting Company, 9th Channel, Pirveli Stereo, Kavkasia, Iberia, 7th Channel, TV Adjaria, Evrika, and few channels with test programs. The most popular among them is Rustavi 2; it is followed by the Channel 1 of the state TV. Pirveli Stereo, which is an entertainment channel, has found its niche and its popularity is growing. As for the 9th Channel, which exists thanks to the financial contributions of a Georgian businessman working in Russia, Bidzina Ivanishvili, despite generous funding and good technical base, it did not manage to advance in the ratings. The reason behind it is that the channel, with its secure financial base, pays no attention to fluctuations in the information market.
Along with acting TV channels, there are some projects for new channels, the most interesting of which is the TV Imedi, which also belongs to the Georgian businessman with financial interests in Russia, Badri Patarkatsishvili, who is declared wanted by Russian law enforcement bodies.
As for other small TV companies, which have so far failed even to create normal working conditions, they are facing the threat of closure through the process of relicensing. But this process is constantly delayed. Shevardnadze long thought before he appointed Chairmen of National Communications Commission, since licensing is the job of this commission. Finally, president appointed his former press secretary Vakhtang Abashidze. Now, the most important struggle will be for getting the license for broadcasting on the former Russian Public Television channel (ORT). After ORT stopped broadcasting in Georgia, none of the TV companies have used its frequency channel. This channel can broadcast all over Georgia which is something that all TV companies desire. Rustavi 2 broadcasts via 2 satellites, but still cannot cover all Georgia. This makes Rustavi 2 a candidate for the license. However, authorities are not particularly eager to grant license to Rustavi 2, an independent TV channel with proven potential to create problems for the government.
Despite numerous problems that threaten the Georgian media both from within and outside, one can say that the independent media does exist in Georgia. The genie is out of the bottle and nobody can put it back again.
The famous early 20th century Spanish thinker Miguel de Unamuno remarked that the press is an exact copy of its society and reflects all of its lapses. The same can be said about Georgia. The Georgian press very much resembles Georgian society. However, Georgia’s intellectual elite has a huge role to play in the process of formation of civil society. European societies have passed this process long ago, while we are still undergoing it. Intellectual elite must perform the function of an icebreaker and Georgian mass media has a role in this process.