TBILISI, DFWatch – The Georgian press, which has long been a stronghold of independence, is warning it is in danger of being wiped out by a new distribution system which could be used to censure their access to customers.

Newspapers in Georgia are almost totally reliant on street sale. Therefore news stands are the only way papers are able to reach their readers. Recently Tbilisi City Hall announced a tender which indicates that a new chain of kiosks will have their locations at exactly the same places where there are kiosks selling newspapers today.

This seems to indicate that the government wants to shut down the existing booths and replace them with the new ones, which if run by a company loyal to the authorities could strangle the press’ access to readers, and this poses a significant threat to freedom of the press, warns a number of newspaper editors.

The government statement about the new sales booths came recently and announced a bidding contest about locating booths at the specific places around the capital.

The announcement from City Hall makes it clear that the new booths will be located in places where newspaper kiosks are already standing.

Merab Chanchalashvili, the director of Planeta Forte, one of the existing kiosk chains, claims that he was contacted from the Tbilisi Supervision Service and they demanded that his company must remove their booths.

“If the process isn’t stopped all the businesses distributing newspapers will have to close. They called and verbally instructed us to take away the booths. We refuse this, and we demand an the official document from the Supervision Service. After this they called demanding to take the booths away. They demand to remove booths from all districts: Isani, Samgori, Gldani, Saburtalo, Digomi etc,” Merab Chinchalashvili says.

The owners of the kiosks claim City Hall has given them two days to remove the booths.

Lasha Tugushi, chairman of the Press Association warns that there can be serious problem distributing newspapers.

According to him, the City Hall new system to have a chain of newspaper kiosks at locations already used by existing newspaper kiosks creates a serious problem of distributing newspapers and may make it impossible for newspapers to reach customers in the city, especially since it is not clear whether the new kiosks will be selling and whether they could simply stop distributing newspapers and sell food instead.

“How is it possible to endlessly when and whoever will want to sell Khinkali instead of the newspapers; take off the newspaper kiosk and sell khinkali [a Georgian dish]? Yes, let them sell khinkali, but everything has its place. How is it possible to sell khinkali everywhere and that food is served everywhere? How can we make Georgian civil society become a khinkali-eating society? Don’t the press, magazines and books have the right to exsist?” Lasha Tugushi asks.

The bidding contest announced by City Hall applies to locations where there today are standing kiosks run by Planeta Forte, Macne Company and Elvarservisi Ltd.

For this reason, most newspapers’ management consider it crucial that the media stands united to save the press distribution, because, as they see it, the government has a plan to monopolize the distribution system of newspapers, and the free media should intervene in this process.

Irakli Tevdorashvili, founder of the Weekly Palitra newspaper thinks that this problem should be solved through legislation.

“We remember a number of attacks against this sector. As for this specific development, I think that the distributors now being asked by the government to remove their booths, should be given the opportunity to continue working for a fixed price. Even if the City Hall demands from them to put up new booths, like the booths they have on their website. A press distribution company shouldn’t be in competition with those in the business of serving drinks or even shaurma [a Turkish dish popular in Georgia],” Irakli Tevdorashvili says.

But Paata Veshapidze, editor in chief of the daily newspaper 24 Hours, doesn’t see any danger in this new system.

“As many kiosks will continue, more newspapers will be sold,” he states.

Tbilisi City Hall hasn’t made any comments about the issue, except the statement released in the evening of November 24 which says that the new booths location is aimed to support small and medium size business.

The statement says ‘everyone should equally compete in the bidding contest. All kinds of exception, which will become the grounds to locate the kiosks without internet auction, will be a violation of the rights of the people who have participated in the bidding and won.’

In Tbilisi City Hall it’s considered unfair to politicize this issue, because the case is about creating healthy competition in the country, to develop business and create jobs. 3 to 4 people will be employed in each kiosk, which will create around a thousands new jobs.

But media representatives speak about the problem that other products will be sold instead of newspapers in the kiosks, and this will aggravate already difficult conditions of the print media. And in case newspapers aren’t sold they will be closed.