On April 1 2015, the amendments to the Georgian law on Broadcasting entered into force. The amendments significantly change the norms regulating commercial advertising and product placement on television.
Even though both the parliamentarian minority and TV broadcasters criticized the changes as a threat to the media’s editorial independence through financial pressure, the parliamentarian majority passed the law, claiming that the Association Agreement with the EU required such a legal framework. The amendments mostly copy restrictions envisaged by the EU directive, such as setting precise intervals when TV companies are allowed to air telemarketing and commercials and the total duration of advertising time. However, it imposes additional restrictions that could undermine the financial stability of certain broadcasters. What is critical is the issue of timing: The legal changes coerce media holders to amend their financial plans in the middle of the year. According to the EU Association Agreement, Georgia has a 3-5 year period in which to amend the laws in the field of audio-visual cooperation. Such harsh changes do not need to be implemented immediately. A gradual transition to the new regulations would have mitigated the financial losses of TV broadcasting companies.
Many assumed that the swift changes to the law targeted one specific TV channel, Rustavi 2, which is the most popular TV broadcaster in Georgia. Rustavi 2 is led by former United National Movement member. Members of the Georgian Dream coalition parliamentary majority party often accuse the company of being biased for the UNM. Rustavi 2’s revenues from commercials far exceed the advertising revenues of other companies in Georgia, and so Rustavi 2 is expected to suffer most. Members of the Georgian Dream parliamentary majority have even singled out Rustavi 2 while talking about the new law, fuelling the beliefs of the UNM parliamentary minority that the law is of a politicized nature.
It is not the first time that there have been concerns about pressure on the media. The media’s independence was also undermined by changes in media ownership and the dismissal of the Georgian Public Broadcaster’s Board of Trustees. Former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili and also other members of the Georgian Dream have made statements directly targeting several broadcasters. Representatives of regional media outlets have also accused the Ministry of Internal Affairs about their involvement and pressure on local newspapers. Recently, statements by two popular journalists of Imedi TV about the pressure from the government created the sense that the Georgian Dream parliamentary majority is involved in the broadcaster’s editorial policy. These allegations remain uninvestigated.
The members of parliament deny the accusations that the law creates pressure on the media, and argue again that the requirements of the Association Agreement are the reason behind the changes in the law. The requirements of the Association Agreement have become a common excuse in recent months to justify unpleasant and rough legal changes, such as the changes to the visa policy or the increased excise tax on alcohol. This practice, of falling on the Association Agreement as a justification for unpopular changes, politicizes the meaning of the document.
It is widely believed that editorial independence increased after the parliamentary elections of October 2012. Yet the issue of media freedom should not fall off the radar screen, especially as new parliamentary elections in 2016 are approaching, and the political situation in Georgia is highly polarized. Controversial changes to the Law on Broadcasting, statements from members of the parliamentary ruling majority party, attacking the media, as well as allegations of government interference in media independence raise the fear that the ruling party is targeting specific broadcasters in order to curb their financial independence and influence their editorial freedom. Indirect discrimination against certain media holders and attempts to influence editorial independence through the law needs special attention as a potential threat to the freedom of the media.