TBILISI, DFWatch – Representatives of Georgian press are planning a demonstration in front of Tbilisi City Hall on Tuesday, November 29. Their demand is for the City Hall to stop harassing the free press.

This comes after Tbilisi City Hall began to take away press newspaper booths in the capital, which is the main distribution channel for free press in the country.

Subscription is not functioning effectively as a means to distribute newspapers, and street sale is vital for the press to survive. The print media considers the new tender to establish a chain of kiosks as an attempt by City Hall to destroy the print media, which is widely regarded as a stronghold of free speech in Georgia.

While the press is mostly free, the national TV stations are by most commentators seen as under the control of the government, despite legislative changes to bring more openness in terms of media ownership. There are a few small independent TV stations, but they have so far not been allowed to broadcast to all of Georgia, and are therefore confined to the capital and the internet.

Organizers are using Facebook to rally people for Tuesday’s demonstration and has had a massive response from users of the social media site, encompassing people from many walks of life.

The background is a new tender announced by Tbilisi City Hall called “Supporting small and medium sized businesses”.

Tbilisi City Hall’s tender is for a lease contract to install a thousand modern sales booths around the capital.

Press kiosk owners who have participated in the bidding say that the lease price is too high for it to be commercially viable to sell newspapers there.

Merab Chanchalashvili, chairman of the Planeta Forte kiosk chain, says that at some locations the annual lease price per booth exceeded twenty thousand lari, and if a kiosk owner can afford this price, then he will have to change the profile of what is being sold.

During the last few days, Tbilisi City Hall has been removing newspaper kiosks in the capital. Their argument of this action is that the press kiosk owners’ agreement with the City Hall is expired.

Owners of the news stands say City Hall’s statement is not true.

Merab Chanchalashvili, and Dali Macharashvili, owner of Matsne, another chain of kiosks, claim that they have repeatedly appealed to City Hall requesting an extension of the contract.

“City Hall kept saying that they cannot determine the lease price of the grounds, because there is no appropriate law and when there will be one, we will end the contracts, they said,” according to Dali Macharashvili. “I don’t know how they determined prices when the new booths have been located. The fact is that they have used all these against us. More precisely, in order for us to change our profiles.”

Representatives of the press and some politicians have for the last days warned that Tbilisi City Hall is trying to oppress print media.

The Free Democrat, Republican, New Rightists and Christian Democrat parties have separately appealed to Tbilisi City Hall to ‘stop the attack on press and give print media the opportunity to be freely sold’.

The City Hall responded with their old position and released a statement saying that City Hall had made equal conditions with the tender and they cannot give concessions to anyone, including newspaper distribution companies.

Media representatives claim that city hall’s project has nothing to do with improving conditions for small and medium sized businesses and creating new jobs. They say it is directed at destroying the existing system of newspaper distribution, and as such poses a clear threat to freedom of speech.

In their statement the Georgian press writes that City Hall’s last move has already impacted on the cisculation numbers of Georgian print media, and this creates serious financial problems for magazines and newspapers and hinders freedom of speech and their ability to get across to society.

The vast majority of representatives of the media released a common appeal to society, the government, diplomatic corps and all interested persons. Signatories are 32 newspapers and magazines, 6 regional newspapers, 4 online news sites, Georgian Press Association and Georgian Regional Media Association.

“We, the undersigned call for and demand of the Tbilisi City Hall to stop the steps made against the print media. We demand that the tender under the cover of so-called ‘healthy competition’ is not applied to kiosks where there traditionally has been sold newspapers for years; accordingly, that they remain islands of freedom in Tbilisi where citizen will be able to obtain information and form their own opinion about ongoing events in the country,” the appeal says.