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Press FreedomGeorgia

In Georgia, 'journalism is no longer considered safe'

Anja Koch in Tbilisi, Georgia
November 26, 2023

Is Georgia ready to join the European Union? The 27-member bloc will decide in December. Officials in Brussels have stressed there's room for improvement on media freedom, amid growing government pressure on journalists.

TV journalists from Formula TV pictured on a monitor at their studio
The work of journalists, like those from Formula TV, is becoming increasingly difficult in GeorgiaImage: Anja Koch/DW

There are just seconds to go until the start of the 6 p.m. show on Mtavari TV, and a small team has crowded into the control room on a side street in the capital, Tbilisi. After a few final instructions, host Mikheil Sesiashvili is on air. The big news this evening is an accident at the university, though no was one was hurt.

Mtavari TV decides for itself what and how it reports. The channel's staff of roughly 300 has fought hard to make it that way. They set up shop in 2019 in a rebellion against their former employer, whose editorial line was, in their view, too friendly to the government.

The work isn't easy, as Sesiashvili explained. "I'm hosting a show on a broadcaster whose managing director spent one year and three months in prison for political reasons," he said.

He hadn't committed any crimes, but he was critical of the government, added Sesiashvili. "And everyone here in this building is thinking: maybe I'm next."

Staff in the control room of Mtavari TV in Tbilisi
The staff at Mtavari TV are facing financial insecurityImage: Anja Koch/DW

Politically motivated convictions for journalists?

In May 2022, Mtavari TV managing director Nika Gvaramia was sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison. His sentence related to the alleged private use of his company car, which judges argued had financially harmed the broadcaster. But many suspected a political motivation.

The European Union has called on Georgia to release Gvaramia, most recently in its regular review of whether EU accession candidates, including Georgia, fulfill the conditions to start negotiations. At the end of June, Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili pardoned Gvaramia.

Nonetheless, Sesiashvili can't shake the daily thought that journalists can randomly end up in jail. "It's difficult, but we colleagues try to keep each others spirits up and to concentrate on why we are doing this job. I call us freedom fighters, because we are fighting for a more democratic, freer Georgia," he said.

Laws used as 'bureaucratic scalpel' against journalists

More freedom, more democracy. These are the values that bind Georgia with the EU. When surveyed, more than 80% of Georgians frequently express support for joining the bloc. Graffiti with EU flags and slogans like "We are Europe" adorn walls all over Tbilisi.

In early November, when the European Commission recommended that the 27 member states give Georgia EU candidate status, spontaneous celebrations broke out in the capital city.

But there was a catch: Of the 12 priority criteria where EU officials had previously identified room for improvement, Georgia had only fulfilled three.

A blue T-shirt with EU flag and a map of Georgia, with the words: I am Georgian and therefore, I am European
Georgian citizens make their EU aspirations clear. Can the government deliver?Image: Pond5 Images/IMAGO

The government needed to improve its track record on press freedom and media independence, officials in Brussels warned. But the government in Tbilisi appears unmoved. Earlier this year, it passed a law that made it easier to revoke journalists' parliamentary accreditation. As a result, posing a difficult question twice in a row can see reporters denied access to the legislature.

Mariam Gersamia, a researcher at Transparency International Georgia, has called the bill a "bureaucratic scalpel." In her job, there aren't many positive developments to report. "We see campaigns to discredit journalists and we observe the demonization of the job," she said.

"Independent journalists get vilified as supporters of certain political parties, politicians refuse to give interviews to outlets that don't toe their line," she added. All this leads to more polarization, not only in the media landscape but in society at large.

Money trouble threatens journalists' work

Sesiashvili said he has frequently invited government figures as guests on to his show, but they never show up. But the outlet has another, more pressing problem: it's broke. Staff wages have only been secured for the next four months, and new sources of income are hard to come by.

"I know a lot of managing directors and company owners in Georgia that shy away from advertising with us," said Sesiashvili. "They're scared of having problems with the government, for example with unusual tax office audits. And unfortunately I have to say that their fears are well grounded."

Gersamia of Transparency International said the government-funded state-owned broadcaster is in a particularly advantageous position: it receives more money from the government alone than all other broadcasters together earn from advertising.

'Journalism is no longer considered safe in Georgia'

In northern Tbilisi, away from the dazzling Rustaveli Avenue with its international fashion chain stores and the Old Town so beloved by tourists, lies the headquarters of Formula TV — a channel with links to the political opposition.

This is where Misha Mshvildadze films his weekly satire show. The tall, stout entertainer is not one to hold his tongue. This has made him popular with many Georgians, though certainly not everyone.

Misha Mshvildadze, a large man with a graying beard, looks at the camera against a blue and white background
Satirist Misha Mshvildadze was attacked on the streets of Tbilisi in JuneImage: Anja Koch/DW

In June, he was leaving the office in the evening, as usual, when he was followed and beaten up by several men on the busy street. Mshvildadze said they repeatedly hit him in the eye, and he believes the aim of the attack was not to inflict serious injuries, but to make sure his injuries were clearly visible.

"Everyone knows me in this country. So attacking me in public sends a message to everyone here: If I'm not safe, no one is safe. And anyone who expresses criticism must expect to be punished," he said.

Colleagues tried to find the perpetrators, reconstructing the attack and analyzing surveillance camera footage. They came to the conclusion that the attack had been orchestrated by the Georgian secret service. A man employed by the secret service was eventually convicted for the attack, but the head of the service has denied that the perpetrator acted on official orders.

"Journalism is no longer considered safe in Georgia," said Gersamia of Transparency International. "Nor is it a job that promises popularity. Instead, journalists are seen as annoying."

The number of people changing careers is alarming, she added — not a good sign for a country where many harbor ardent EU aspirations.

This article was originally written in German.