Government, Politics and Regulation

In recent years, the legal environment for media and journalism has experienced significant improvement in Georgia. Freedom House, a U.S.-based NGO, heaped praise on the country for sporting “the freest and most diverse media landscape in its region.” A smooth transition to digital broadcasting in 2015 and the signing of an agreement between Georgia and the EU led to improved regulation.

However, in practice, media policymaking and regulation remain heavily politicized following a long history of government meddling in the media

The Georgian National Communications Commission (GNCC), the country’s main media regulator led by Chairman Kakha Bekauri, is steadily losing credibility because of its non-transparent decision-making process and the political affiliations of its commissioners. A spate of reforms, carried out since 2014, helped bolster GNCC’s institutional capacity and improve accountability. But politicians are still exerting significant influence on GNCC: political favoritism spoils hiring practices and commissioners are in hock to political groups, according to the report, which analyzes the key trends in media regulation and policy in Georgia.

These trends are worrisome as the GNCC has no strategy on the internet at a time when the media sector is experiencing major shifts. Internet regulation is inconsistent and anti-western propaganda spreads unabated. The debate about internet regulation is thus heating up.

A few progressive and visionary influencers, including Lasha Tugushi, Nata Dzvelishvili, Zviad Koridze and Natia Kuprashvili, have risen in the Georgian media policy and regulation. But their power pales in comparison to the influence that political groups and wealthy financiers have in both policy and media operations. They include the Ivanishvili and Patarkatsishvili families, with stakes in large broadcast groups and solid connections in the political world.

A matured civil society has been increasingly effective in pushing back against political influence and growing ownership concentration. A new generation of media professionals has been snatching up top jobs in media companies and a growing number of NGOs help media become more sustainable, work to raise journalistic standards and influence media policy and journalism debates. But that is hardly sufficient to build a vibrant independent journalism sector able to compete with the country’s media behemoths.

Correction, April 3, 2019:

A previous version of this report mistakenly stated the end date of Georgian National Communication Commission (GNCC) commissioners’ terms in office. In addition, the description of the ownership structure of Obiektivi was based on outdated documents. Those mistakes have been corrected. We apologize.

Taking into account a letter from GNCC, we added some clarification regarding Mr Bekauri’s qualifications. We also added a note reflecting legal changes in accordance with Article 64 of the Law on Broadcasting.

Funding Journalism

To describe the power dynamics in the Georgian media, one would not need much space. Two families, two brothers and the government control, own or fund most of the media in Georgia.

The brothers Levan and Giorgi Kharamanishvili, two local entrepreneurs, and the Patarakatsishvilis and Tseretelis, two wealthy families, control the four largest television operators in the country, which together command the bulk of television audience, nearly 65% combined.

The government retains a strong position, too, mostly thanks to public funding used to finance media outlets. In 2018, the Georgian government plunked down some US$ 20.5m for GPB, the country’s flagship public service broadcaster. It spent another US$ 2.7m to buy space in private media, roughly 56% of that going to finance private television channels, with the two leading commercial stations TV Imedi (owned by the Patarakatsishvilis) and Rustavi 2 (owned by the Kharamanishvili brothers) snapping up most of the contracts.

Add to that a thicket of political links and you have an environment that hardly enables independent journalism and media to thrive.

The irony is that although demand for news content is high and growing, and the internet penetration is constantly rising, news producers in Georgia are barely turning a profit. The ad market has decreased in recent years and most of that revenue is pulled in by the few large players and global tech giants. Print media in particular has been hit hard, grappling with dwindling circulations and ad revenue. Once-popular newspapers abandoned print and moved entirely online.

But the industry’s hopes that the internet will provide the solution are quickly dashed. No business strategy has worked to date. Giorgi Jangiani, the report’s author wrote: “[…] It’s not only newspapers that are struggling to monetize their digital products. News portals that started online and have only an internet presence are also under the cosh.” The small size of the Georgian market, for example, is an obstacle to subscription-based models.

Some of the major publishers have been experimenting with various, yet untried, models. Palitra Holding, publisher of Georgia’s best-selling non-tabloid weekly, Kviris Palitra, has tried to lure readers with packaged products such as discounted packages of books and newspapers.

Philanthropies try to fill the gap, spending part of their grant money on public service journalism such as investigative reporting initiatives and news media. But their contributions, although helpful, are far from sufficient to solve the sector’s woes.

In all, local media are by a long chalk in the worst predicament in Georgia. The local media market (outlets operating outside the capital Tbilisi) was valued at only US$ 1m in 2018, which is a fraction of the overall media spend. Financial problems send many of these outlets into bankruptcy. Revenue from political advertising helps some of them, but those funds come only when politicians go out on the hustings. Moreover, only a small proportion of political ad spending goes to local outlets as politicians seek big exposure through large media companies.

The latest technological advances could be a game-changer, experts say. Artificial Intelligence (AI), Virtual Reality (VR) or image-recognition software could enable media to engage the audience in forms never seen before in Georgia as a way to find new sources of revenue.

In a highly politicized, dysfunctional media market, as Georgia is today, there seems to be no other way forward.