Georgia: State TV Reforms Edge Forward

Changes to board of trustees not enough for opposition.

Georgia: State TV Reforms Edge Forward

Changes to board of trustees not enough for opposition.

The Georgian government, keen to end months of protests, has proposed reforms to soothe public distrust of the state broadcaster – but the opposition, which would get a new oversight role, says they have been poorly thought out.

Changes to the state broadcaster, Georgian PPublic BBroadcasting, were key to proposals made last week by President Mikheil Saakashvili aimed at ending months of opposition protests that have paralysed the centre of the capital.

“We must steadily move towards depoliticising this organisation, including civil society more broadly in its work and broadening the functions of the Board of Trustees. These changes must be adopted in the next 90 days,” Saakashvili told parliament on July 20.

A week after his speech, his ruling party proposed a draft amendment to the broadcasting law which would see the state broadcaster’s board of trustees expanded to 15 members from nine, with seven of the places going to the government and seven to the opposition. Those 14 members would then elect the remaining one.

“This change allows the opposition to fill the board of trustees with the people they want,” said Pavle Kublashvili, the chairman of parliament’s legal committee and one of the draft law’s authors.

The trustees set programme priorities and appoint the general director.

However, opposition politicians were not mollified, saying that expanding the size of the board would not be enough to regain the trust of the viewing public, which has long grown accustomed to believing Georgian Public Broadcasting serves the interests of the government alone.

“Instead of setting quotas for the authorities and the opposition, it would be better to choose neutral representatives of society for these positions,” said Pikria Chikhradze, a representative of the opposition New Rights party.

She said the plan for reforming the company had been drawn up by the president and his allies without consulting the opposition and the public. Expert commentators doubted that such a murky plan would win the public trust the president was aiming for.

“I do not think that an increase in the number of members of the Board of Trustees will solve this problem. Public Television should be overseen by members of the public,” said Eliso Chapidze, an expert in media issues.

The board is currently supposed to have nine members, but four of them resigned in April in protest against the company’s coverage of events in the country.

“The mood in society was negative. People called us and said they could not get full information on what was happening in the country from the channel, and this is unacceptable to me,” said Irma Sokhadze, a famous Georgian singer who was one of the board members who resigned.

Journalists at the station are rumoured to be banned from interviewing certain opposition politicians, and their work censored, but the channel strongly denies any such restrictions. Levan Kubaneishvili, the state broadcaster’s general director, quit in July, adding fuel to the conspiracy theories. He has not yet been replaced.

The chairman of the trustees rejected any suggestion that the channel is biased towards the government in its news coverage, and said the trustees were constantly working to make it better.

“The board of trustees has done a lot this year. Maybe we have not been able to do as much as we would like, but I think we have done a lot of good,” Levan Gakheladze said.

“[Gerogian] Public Broadcasting has the most balanced of all the news programmes. You can check this on the channel’s website, where there is the archive of our shows. Even the monitoring conducted by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Council of Europe and other organisations, shows [the state broadcaster] is distinguished by its balanced politics,” he said.

“Of course, we receive certain complaints, but the complaints in our direction always gain more attention than complaints against other broadcasters, because we are a public company.”

But he will have a hard time convincing ordinary television viewers of that. It is hard to find anyone in Georgia who believes Georgian Public Broadcasting gives the same weight to the opposition as it does to the government.

“In the last couple of years there have been some interesting shows on Channel One, but as for political news, this channel is now what it always has been: the mouthpiece of the government,” said Nugzar Mtivlishvili, a 47-year-old Tbilisi resident.

Tea Topuria is freelance journalist in Tbilisi.
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