Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is concerned about the latest example of political pressure undermining media pluralism and free speech in Georgia – Natia Zoidze’s resignation this week as deputy director of Adjara TV, a regional public TV channel based in the coastal city of Batumi.
“My resignation is not voluntary,” Zoidze announced in a Facebook post on 2 February, adding that it was the result of a “political process.” In December, she had accused the TV channel’s new director, Georgi Kokhreidze, of applying pressure for a change in editorial policies.
The TV channel’s “alternative” trade union issued a statement on 3 February blaming Zoidze’s departure on “interference in editorial independence” and reporting that it was not an isolated case. “The outflow of professional and ethical staff from this broadcaster has become a permanent feature,” the statement added.
After Adjara TV staff members accused the new director of interfering in their work on 30 September, a demonstration in support of the staff was held in Batumi on 6 October.
“Natia Zoidze’s resignation is indicative of the growing political pressure on state-owned media in Georgia,” said Jeanne Cavelier, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk. “At the same time, government allies are increasingly getting control of critical or independent media, such as Rustavi 2. In the run-up to next October’s parliamentary elections, we ask the Georgian authorities to guarantee media independence and pluralism, which are essential for a democratic debate.”
Georgia’s TV channels suffer from politically-biased government measures. The finance ministry’s announcement on 24 December that it would begin to seize overdue taxes from several TV companies prompted accusations from civil society and from the opposition to the ruling Georgian Dream party that it was applying the sanctions selectively.
The government agreed to postpone collection of the 15 million euros owed by leading commercial channels Imedi TV and Rustavi 2, but stepped up the pressure on small, critical TV channels such as TV Kavkasia and TV Pirveli.
Dramatic changes at Rustavi 2 in the course of 2019 have transformed the Georgian media landscape. Previously Georgia’s most popular TV channel and champion of the opposition, Rustavi 2 completely changed its editorial policy after its ownership reverted to previous owner Kibar Khalvashi as a result of a European Court of Human Rights ruling.
The change in ownership led to the departure of the majority of the newsroom including director-general Nika Gvaramia, who was fired and who has since been prosecuted by the Georgian authorities on a charge of “abuse of power.” The authorities have also prosecuted Avtandil Tsereteli, the father of TV Pirveli’s founder.
Georgia is ranked 60th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2019 World Press Freedom Index.