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Georgians Accuse Media of Pro-Government Bias, by Natia Kuprashvili

Press and broadcasters seen as subservient, misleading many about their safety.

By Natia Kuprashvili in Tskhinvali (CRS No. 513, 02-Oct-09) - IWPR

Archil Razmadze, a 33-year-old refugee, abandoned everything he owned when he fled his home near Tskhinvali last year.

He blames the national media for his loss, saying their reassurances of the success of the Georgian operation against the rebel South Ossetian government left him unprepared for the disaster that swept over him.

“When all the Georgian television companies were stating that Georgian forces controlled Tskhinvali, the Ossetian fighters were already holding my village, Disevi,” he said, speaking in the refugee centre in the town of Gori where he now lives.

“No one warned us about the threat, and as a result we lost everything. This lie led to the murder of many civilians.”

Many refugees have the same complaints about the media, and their claims have been checked by a group of experts supported by the Open Society – Georgia fund. The experts assessed the work of all broadcasters of the period, and concluded that reports were “one-sided, and information was often not verified”.

Experts said the Georgian authorities’ propaganda, transmitted by a docile media, put the lives of the residents of the conflict zones under threat, and this was true of both South Ossetia and Abkhazia, a second breakaway region. Ethnic Georgians make up the majority in the Gali region of Abkhazia.

“The Georgian media, especially the central television stations, often transmit sensational material from the conflict zones. We investigated several facts and discovered that the information was unchecked, or distorted,” said Ucha Nanuashvili, director of the Human Rights Centre.

“For example, a series of criminal incidents in the Gali Region were presented as a planned campaign by the Abkhazian side against the Georgian population; or they announced that a curfew had been imposed in the Gali region when this was not true. There are dozens of such facts, and the reports threaten the Georgian population of the conflict zones, since they heighten ethnic tensions.”

According to political analyst Ramaz Sakvarelidze, the most recent example of the authorities using the media to broadcast propaganda was in their reports on the European Union investigation into the Russian-Georgian war of 2008. The report, published on September 30, concluded that Georgia’s attack on Tskhinvali was unjustifiable under international law.

“But in the media controlled by the authorities, the points in the report that criticised the Georgian authorities were removed,” he said. “Another example is the fact that Russian news channels are blocked here.”

International monitoring organisations agree that the Georgian media’s level of freedom has worsened. They say that, despite an adequate legal system, the Georgian media are under pressure from the government, which wants to use them for its own purposes.

This year’s report on Georgia by pro-democracy group Freedom House said, “The Georgian Constitution guarantees freedom of speech and freedom of the media and prohibits censorship. In practice, however, individual journalists and media outlets are sometimes subject to pressure, and constitutional and legal provisions of free access to information are frequently violated. Outlets whose owners support the country’s political leadership dominate the media landscape.”

Georgian television is dominated by three broadcasters, the state television channel, and two private companies: Rustavi-2 and Imedi. Despite the owners and structures of the companies being different, their news programmes are almost exactly the same.

Imedi formerly belonged to businessman Badri Patarkacishvili, and supported the opposition, but it was raided by police and taken off air during a wave of protests in 2007. Now it is controlled by Giorgi Arveladze, the former head of the presidential administration and one of the leaders of the ruling political party National Movement.

The government strongly denies putting any pressure on the media.

President Mikhail Saakashvili’s most recent expression of this was in a speech at the United Nations on September 25, when he cited as evidence the fact that the government had given the opposition Maestro channel permission to broadcast by satellite.

“In Georgia the quality of democracy is improving, and the media are becoming ever more free,” he said.

The owners and employees of the television channels also deny coming under any sort of pressure from the government.

“I have worked here for over six months and never have I come under pressure from the authorities,” said Maka Gafrindashvili, a producer at public television’s news service.

“We have special rules governing the principles of reporting the news, in the first place about the conflict zones. For any breach of these rules, you can lose your job,” said the editor of the news programme at another television station, who asked not to be named.

But their checks and balances do not reassure the Georgian public, which looks at their reports with heavy scepticism.

“If you listen to what’s said on the radio or television, in Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region, not a day goes by without new incidents or provocations. Maybe it is so, you cannot check it anywhere. Everyone says the same thing,” said Gia Baramia, a 32-year-old Tbilisi resident.

Natia Kuprashvili is a freelance journalist in Tbilisi.

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