TBILISI, DFWatch – In 2011, several journalists have lost their job for simply expressing their opinion on the internet.
The ability to freely acquire and distribute information should be recognized as a basic human right. That was the message from media commentators from the three south Caucasus countries who had gathered in Tbilisi this weekend to exchange views on the media and freedom of speech.
“In 2011 I remember several journalists who were fired for expressing their opinion on a social network site. one case was at the channel Mega TV, in the Khoni region. The journalist uploaded a self-shot video. The same happened in Kutaisi, a journalist was fired for her activity on Facebook,” Natia Kuprashvili, director of Association of Regional Broadcasters of Georgia said during a debate after one of the speeches.
The Eighth South Caucasus Media Conference was held in Tbilisi on 20-21 October at the hotel Marriott Tbilisi. The topic of this year’s conference was Pluralism and internet governance.
It was attended by up to 80 people, and included government representatives from Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia, as well as media, parliament, and civil society representatives.
Experts from the South Caucasus presented analyses about the situation in the three different countries on various topics like Internet regulation. After each presentation participants got a chance to engage in debate.
Giga Paitchadze, New Media Program manager at IREX G-Media spoke about internet regulation and the role of online media in Georgia.
According to him, there is no censorship of internet in the country. But sometimes employers may block social network sites, such as Facebook and YouTube, for the employees not to waste time while at work.
He remembered only one time when access to websites have been blocked by the government. That was during the Russia-Georgia war in August 2008 when there was an effort for informational war, and mostly Russian sites became unavailable for Georgian net users.
The main problem today is pirate copied products in the internet sphere, which is not controlled by the government.
All three country representatives agreed on the fact that today social networks and blogs are popular and are a form of civic participation in community life.
Giga Paitchadze discussed the legal environment for freedom of speech through the internet in Georgia. According to him, the constitution guarantees freedom of expression but there can be some cases when under a court order police can check all the privacy information including e-mails and private messages. But there is no special law which regulates internet content.
42% answered ‘no’ to the question ‘Is there freedom of expression in Georgia?’ –IREX Media Sustainability Report, 2011
On the second day skipping the legislation part Tamara Zurabishvili, Media and Innovative Programs manager at Eurasia Partnership Foundation presented changes in the sphere of freedom of expression in Georgia since 2009.
She presented some results of research conducted by IREX and presented in their Media Sustainability reports.
When asked ‘Is there freedom of speech in Georgia?’ 36% answered positive in 2009 and 46% negative. In 2011, 34% answered positive and 42% negative.
The majority of those questioned in 2011 thinks that democracy means first of all freedom of speech, then liberty and then equality before the law.
Tamara Zurabishvili remembered said that during the first years after Eduard Shevardnadze became president in 1993, there was no censorship, later the level of freedom of speech decreased.
According to her, today there is a lower level of freedom of expression, although it is guaranteed on a legislation level. Media mostly is biased and politicized and there is limited plurality and diversity and a monopolized landscape of media.
Later Tamar Kintsurashvili, deputy secretary of the Security Council of Georgia asked whether hate speech and xenophobic expressions in Georgian media is a problem, adding that recently the public defender published a monitoring report about the media coverage of the reaction to a new law on religious minorities.
The guests considered it a problem, and agreed that there is a need for new legislation in this area. Guests from Georgia as well as Armenia and Azerbaijan continued debating on what changes had been made to law and how it applied to diverse media.
According to Tamara Zurabishvili, media in Georgia can not be described as diverse, but rather as polarized. She recognized that newspapers and internet media are more diverse, but the majority of the Georgian population still get their information from TV, which is politicized.
Georgian parliamentarien Chiora Taktakishvili remarked about the same issue that ‘there are channels which favor the government’s interests’ but still there are other Georgian media units which favor other political parties and oppositional interests. So according to her, it cannot be said that the media is polarized also taking into consideration the fact that parliament had adopted a law about media ownership transparency, so the public may know who the owners of the media outlet are.
Taktakishvili said the public has an interest in knowing this, and after the implementation of a law on media ownership there will be a clearer picture of who the owners are. Refering to the financier Bidzina Ivanishvili’s offer to buy two independent TV station recently, she added that there also are situations when people know quite well who the owners are: “When politician can say that ‘I’ll buy any political broadcaster for three times the price’, what to expect after such a proposal,” she said.
Guests disagreed about the degree of censorship and level of freedom of expression in Armenia and Azerbaijan. Discussions were especially tough when it came to Azerbaijan.
Arif Aliyev, the director of Turan News Agency in Azerbaijan, asked whether there is foreign capital in Georgian media.
“Until just recent times it was really impossible to know who the owners were. If I remember correctly the biggest part was owned by a company which was registered offshore. If we count this as foreign capital than yes, there was foreign capital in Georgia. But we cannot say who owned it,” Zurab Khrikadze, who represented the peace and development program at UNDP Georgia answered.
“We discussed the law adopted this year about media ownership transparency and this must make it clear. As Taktakishvili mentioned the fact that we did not know who the owners were, raised distrust among locals and foreigners.”
There were lively debates especially after the Azerbaijani speakers. The guests from Azerbaijan and Bakhtiyar Mammadov, head of the legal department at the Ministry of Communication and Information Technologies in Azerbaijan argued that there is not such a ‘perfect situation’ in the country as he had presented.
“The only good thing at this conference I think is the opportunity to have talks that never happen in our country,” Vusala Alibayova, correspondent of Radio Liberty Azerbaijan, told DFWatch.
Other guests also mentioned the opportunity to ‘sit in one room with colleagues from other countries’ and discussing the same problems or improvements in these countries together.
The main problem in Azerbaijan was said to be expensive internet, and accordingly less users. Some also underlined the importance of social networks in Azerbaijan and Armenia, where the ‘opinion-makers’ are gathered. Guests disagreed about the degree of censorship and level of freedom of expression in those two countries. Discussions were especially tough when it came to Azerbaijan.
The conference ended with the adoption of a declaration which was an appeal to governments not to block internet access as a form of punishment; also to avoid vague wording in the legislation which sets the boundaries of freedom of expression. States should ensure openness and transparency, the declaration says, while asking states to support and develop the idea of pluralism and to avoid monopolization of the mass media.
The annual conference was organized by the OSCE Representatives of Freedom of the Press Office and the OSCE Offices in Baku and Yerevan.