Transparency of Media Ownership in Georgia

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Some of the major changes that Georgia’s current government implemented in order to secure right to freedom of expression include the adoption of the Law On Broadcasting (2004) the adoption of the new progressive Law On Freedom of Speech and Expression (2004), the abolishment of defamation as a criminal offence and interim liberalization of the tax regime to include tax benefits for the print media.

These changes were meant to improve the free generation and exchange of ideas and to strengthen the level of independence of media as well as of activities of professionals in charge. However, expected results did not take place and the media situation has significantly worsened since 2004. A big share of deteriorating media situation can be attributed to the increasing control by the government of the major actors in electronic media, including three major TV channels: “Rustavi 2”, “Imedi” and “Mze”, through involuntary transfer of ownership to government allied groups who would ensure pro-governmental editorial policies and minimize the access of opposition political forces to the major information medium in Georgia – television.

As a part of a “new wave of democratic reforms” the ruling party of Georgia – National Movement, proposed to introduce changes to the media related laws (mostly Georgian Law on Broadcasting and General Administrative code which, among others regulates issues of access to information) concerning transparency of the media ownership as well as financial transparency. The proposed package addresses not only ownership transparency issue, but also involves issues like easing access to public information – the problem over which many journalists are increasingly complaining recently. The proposal also offers measures for reducing timeframe of lengthy practice of court deliberations into the cases when journalists are denied access to public information and waiving court fees for such cases. It also addresses broadcasters’ licensing issues, as well as problems related with conflict of interest in the broadcast media and clear-cut regulations for media advertisement.

Parliament of Georgia decided on December 17, 2010, to postpone discussion of and voting on draft law on media ownership transparency with second reading for February, 2011, citing the need to continue consultations on the matter. One of the outstanding issues that still require further discussions is rules for financial transparency of media. The ruling party-proposed draft does not envisage a provision, which would enable a detailed tracking of financial resources and funding of the broadcasters – requirement actively pushed by a group of legal and media experts. One of the proposals of the ruling party is that draft would include a provision which would require the Georgian National Communications Commission (GNCC) to post on its website not only information about ownership of broadcasters, but also conclusions of financial audit of broadcasters. Nonetheless, some argue that conclusions would fail to give a conclusive picture of broadcasters’ finances and additional measure would be required in this regard.

Thanks to the consistent lobbying effort of civil society groups it was already made possible to impose an outright ban on ownership of broadcasters by offshore-registered firms. The initial draft allowed offshore firms to own maximum of 10% of shares in broadcasters, but the ruling party agreed to remove this provision and the draft, passed with first reading on December 7, imposes an outright ban for offshore-registered firms to own shares in broadcasters.

While introduction of the proposed changes will be a significant step forward, it’s impact on median independence and quality of reporting still needs to be seen in practice. As the statement of the Office of the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media rightly pointed out that it is good to attempt to obtain information on the real ownership as rules to avoid concentration and to increase plurality would be pointless if they could be circumvented by hiding the real owners behind a façade of other owners.

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