In Georgia, “Journalism is no longer considered safe” – DW – November 26, 2023

With just a few seconds left until the 6 p.m. show on Mtavari TV begins, a small team is crowded into the control room on a side street in the capital, Tbilisi. After a few final instructions, presenter Mikheil Sesiashvili goes on air. The big news tonight is an accident at the university, but no one was injured.

Mtavari TV decides for itself what and how it reports. The station’s approximately 300 employees fought hard for this. They were founded in 2019 in a rebellion against their former employer, whose editorial line they believed was too pro-government.

The work is not easy, as Sesiashvili explained. “I present a show at a station whose managing director spent a year and three months in prison for political reasons,” he said.

He did not commit any crimes but was critical of the government, Sesiashvili added. “And everyone in this building thinks: Maybe I’ll be next.”

Mtavari TV employees are facing financial insecurity. Image: 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 verdict related to the alleged private use of his company car, which the judges said had caused financial damage to the station. But many suspected a political motivation.

The European Union has called on Georgia to release Gvaramia, most recently as part of its regular review of whether EU candidate countries, including Georgia, meet the conditions for starting negotiations. At the end of June, Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili pardoned Gvaramia.

Nevertheless, Sesiashvili cannot shake the everyday thought that journalists can accidentally end up in prison. “It’s difficult, but as colleagues we try to keep each other happy and focused on why we do this job. I call us freedom fighters because we are fighting for a more democratic, freer Georgia,” he said.

Laws are used as a “bureaucratic scalpel” against journalists

More freedom, more democracy. These are the values ​​that connect Georgia with the EU. More than 80% of Georgians frequently express support for joining the bloc in a poll. Graffiti with EU flags and slogans such as “We are Europe” adorn walls across Tbilisi.

When the European Commission recommended that the 27 member states grant Georgia EU candidate status at the beginning of November, there were spontaneous celebrations in the capital.

But there was a catch: Of the 12 priority criteria that EU officials had previously identified areas for improvement, Georgia had only met three.

Georgian citizens make their EU aspirations clear. Can the government deliver? Image: Pond5 Images/IMAGO

The government must improve its track record on press freedom and media independence, officials in Brussels warned. But the government in Tbilisi appears unimpressed. At the beginning of the year, a law was passed that makes it easier to withdraw parliamentary accreditation from journalists. Asking a difficult question twice in a row can result in reporters being denied access to Parliament.

Mariam Gersamia, a researcher at Transparency International Georgia, called the bill a “bureaucratic scalpel.” There aren’t many positive developments to report in her job. “We see campaigns to discredit journalists and see the demonization of the job,” she said.

“Independent journalists are vilified as supporters of certain political parties, politicians refuse to give interviews to media outlets that do not toe their line,” she added. All of this leads to more polarization, not just in the media landscape, but in society as a whole.

Money problems endanger the work of journalists

Sesiashvili said he often invited government officials as guests to his show, but they never showed up. But the socket has another, more pressing problem: it is broken. Employee wages are only guaranteed for the next four months and new sources of income are difficult to find.

“I know many business leaders and business owners in Georgia who are afraid to advertise with us,” said Sesiashvili. “They are afraid of getting into problems with the government, for example through unusual tax office audits. And I’m sad to say that their fears are well-founded.”

Transparency International’s Gersamia said the state-funded broadcaster is in a particularly advantageous position: It receives more money from the government alone than all other broadcasters combined make from advertising.

“Journalism is no longer considered safe in Georgia”

In the north of Tbilisi, away from the dazzling Rustaveli Avenue with its international fashion chains and the old town, which is so popular with tourists, is the headquarters of Formula TV – a channel with connections to the political opposition.

This is where Misha Mshvildadze films his weekly satirical show. The tall, burly entertainer isn’t one to keep his mouth shut. This has endeared him to many Georgians, although certainly not all.

Satirist Mischa Mshvildadze was attacked on the streets of Tbilisi in June. Image: Anja Koch/DW

In June, he was leaving the office as usual in the evening when he was chased and beaten 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 ensure that 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 will face punishment,” he said.

Colleagues tried to find the perpetrators, reconstructed the attack and analyzed the recordings from surveillance cameras. They concluded that the attack had been staged by Georgian intelligence. A secret service employee was ultimately convicted of the attack, but the head of the secret service denied that the perpetrator had acted on official orders.

“Journalism is no longer considered safe in Georgia,” said Gersamia of Transparency International. “It’s also not a job that promises popularity. Instead, journalists are seen as annoying.”

The number of career changes is alarming, she added – not a good sign for a country where many have big ambitions for the EU.

This article was originally written in German.