Official interference undermines efforts undertaken to improve press freedom. The environment is becoming increasingly hostile for independent and opposition media and the country saw an unprecedented number of physical assaults on journalists in 2021.
The media landscape is diverse and, at the same time, highly politically polarised. Manipulation, hate speech and disinformation are widespread in the media, especially on television, the main source of information. Media owners often control editorial content, as seen with Rustavi 2, a TV channel whose editorial line changed completely after it was handed over to a former owner. Regional and community radio stations are growing in strength, while the print media’s readership is in decline and that of online news outlets is on the rise.
The country is undergoing a new and serious political crisis following contested legislative elections in October 2020. This environment favours sustained competition for control of television networks. Georgian law prohibits political parties from owning media, but the big networks generally defend the interests of their owners, who often have close ties to political leaders. The same goes for state-owned media, which are subject to interference by the authorities. At the same time, the authorities often refuse to respond to media that criticise them and sometimes resort to censorship, raids, smear campaigns and intimidation.
In the run-up to reforms that strengthened media transparency, the government made clear its aim to control independent radio stations and television networks by way of a change in the electronic communication law and then by a bill on “foreign agents” copied from Russia, which was ultimately aborted following street protests and international pressure. Courts have tried to attack the confidentiality of sources, which is guaranteed by the law on freedom of expression.
The advertising market is underdeveloped in print and online media, which are largely financed by donors, usually from the West. The worrying economic problems of privately owned media have been accentuated by a change in advertising legislation and are distorting competition with the heavily subsidised state-owned media.
Georgian society is marked by strong social tensions on certain issues, which affect journalistic coverage. The topics include religion, LGBT rights and Russian influence. Influential social figures, such as members of the Orthodox clergy, are electronically monitored by security services, thereby violating journalists’ confidential source protection.
Verbal and physical assaults on journalists are frequent, including by senior government officials, especially during election campaigns. A sustained and brutal assault on 50 reporters during homophobic counter-demonstrations in July 2021, in front of impassive ecurity forces, marked an unprecedented setback. The lack of transparency and progress in the investigation of the event, as well as the three and a half year sentence for the director of an opposition TV channel,Nika Gvaramia, speak to the impunity enjoyed by those who commit crimes against journalists.