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Media face unknowns after parliamentary elections in Georgia

(RSF/IFEX) - 1 October 2012 - Reporters Without Borders condemns the polarization of the media and many physical attacks on journalists during the tense campaign that preceded the 1 October parliamentary elections in Georgia.

Recent legislative developments that will have a major impact on the media are also a source of concern.

Legislative steps backward

"We deeply regret the Central Electoral Commission's hasty adoption of a regulation limiting the ability of journalists to work in polling stations," Reporters Without Borders said. "Why was it deemed necessary to curb media personnel rights on election day?"

Approved on the evening of 25 September, the regulation placed drastic restrictions on coverage by press photographers and TV cameramen. They required express permission from the president of a polling station in order to enter and, if they did get permission, they would be allowed to move about freely for only ten minutes. Thereafter they were to be confined to the area reserved for observers. Any interview with polling station personnel was to take place outside, and if cameramen went outside, they would not be allowed re-enter.

In addition, on 1 October the "must carry" law - under which cable TV operators were required to carry all the major satellite TV channels during the election campaign - was to cease having effect. While deploring its short duration, Reporters Without Borders had welcomed the law's adoption in June as a first step towards more broadcasting pluralism.

"It is very regrettable that this law ceases to have effect at the very moment when the election results will be announced," Reporters Without Borders said. "Are we going back to the previous situation in which pro-government satellite channels dominated cable TV and boycotted cable TV providers such as Global TV that carry opposition stations?

"We urge the new parliament that will be installed after this election to turn the 'must carry' law into a permanent one and to extend its applicability to over-the-air broadcasting, which reaches a much wider public."

Obstruction, violence

The many physical attacks on journalists at political rallies or outside government buildings during the campaign were indicative of the marked social and media polarization. Incidents took place in Mereti on 26 June, Karaleti on 12 July, Beshumi on 4 August, Lantchkhut on 15 August, Gurdjaani on 17 August, Akhmeta on 23 August, Kazbegi on 9 September and Poti on 14 September. Other journalists were threatened, intimidated or denied access to events they wanted to cover.

"We firmly condemn these acts of violence and intimidation," Reporters Without Borders said. "It is essential that each of these cases be thoroughly investigation in order to punish those responsible and prevent a climate of impunity from taking hold."

Many journalists have also reported that, in general, access to both government and private-sector information is very difficult to obtain and often unfairly granted.

Polarization and lack of independence

Although accentuated by the election, polarization was already a feature of Georgia's media in ordinary times, affecting the print media, which are more diverse, as well as radio and TV. The turmoil in broadcast media in recent years - such as the former opposition TV station Imedi's takeover by businessmen close to President Mikhail Saakashvili - has been very political in nature.

A more recent example was the May 2012 launch of TV9, a station owned by supporters of billionaire and opposition leader Bidzina Ivanishvili. TV9's revelations about the use of torture in prisons have led to two ministers losing their jobs and are widely seen as having had a major impact on public opinion.

An all-out news and information war has been waged between the pro-government TV stations, such as Imedi and Rustavi 2, and opposition stations, such as TV9, Maestro and Kavkasia. The former have the advantage inasmuch as their signals cover the entire country.

Independence is obviously very constrained for media personnel when the political orientation of media is so closely correlated with the views of media owners. The creation of truly independent media with strong safeguards against owner interference in editorial policies and investigative reporting is one of the leading challenges faced by Georgia.

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