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The Georgian Public Broadcaster (GPB) has announced plans to move a large number of their staff to zero-hour contracts. As employees protested the decision, local rights groups have called for parliament to step in.
On 9 September, rights groups the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association (GYLA) and Human Rights Education and Monitoring Centre (EMC) put out a joint statement criticising the GPB’s plans.
According to them, the new contracts would be ‘especially damaging’ to journalists at the GPB, who would still be prohibited from working for rival media stations simultaneously, depriving them of a guaranteed income.
The groups urged the GPB’s Board of Trustees to ‘immediately hold an interim meeting’ to address the issue in a ‘transparent’ and ‘inclusive’ process for all parties involved. They called on the GPB to ‘halt the optimisation process’, at least until they come up with a ‘predictable and consistent employment policy’, including a staffing plan, wage scale, job descriptions, and employee evaluation system.
On 3 September, GYLA and EMC called the announced ‘optimisations’ by the GPB’s management ‘unsubstantiated’ and legally ‘questionable’. Staff and other critics have argued that the offered contracts would leave the possibility of employees not earning a wage at all.
The GPB’s management had given employees until 4 September to accept the new deal, or, according to the GPB Union, they would be fired with two months salary as compensation.
A day before the deadline, the management said they had not fired anyone except for people ‘who virtually never came to work’. They justified their decision with ‘ineffective and unjust work schedules and shifts’ resulting in ‘redundant’ staff, requiring ‘optimisation’.
The plans have sparked protests from employees at the GPB — mostly technical crews and editors — who refused to sign the new contract.
‘This is not GDS, it’s the Public Broadcaster’
The statement from GYLA and EMC also noted that after electing current Director Vasil Maghlaperidze, the Public Broadcaster ‘employed dozens of people, among them, former staff at GDS [Georgian Dream Studios] and Channel 9, which are owned by the [family of Georgian Dream Party chair Bidzina Ivanishvili], without any selection process’.
During a heated meeting on 4 September, GPB journalist Nino Zautashvili told Maghlaperidze ‘don’t forget that this is not GDS, it’s the Public Broadcaster’. Zautashvili, who continued to head protests in front of the station’s offices after the meeting is a union leader at GPB and anchors the ‘Realuri Sivrtse’ (Real Space) TV programme, which frequently highlights poor labour conditions in the country.
On 5 September, Zautashvili appealed to Parliament to dissolve the GPB’s Board of Trustees.
Zautashvili told OC Media they had informed Parliament, the Public Defender, and the President’s administration about the problem, and that a mediator from the Labour Ministry, Irakli Khandashvili, was already involved in the process.
‘We are demanding to see the [GPB’s] employment policy document, which can be the only legal basis to fire an employee, as it would have the specific guidelines of an employee evaluation criteria, job descriptions, etc.; only after this we can talk about layoffs’, said Zautashvili.
According to her, they have not received a clear answer from the management over what the basis of the new contracts was, which she called ‘arbitrary firings’.
‘When a director says that these processes will definitely continue, more than 70 employees — all 1,230 workers [employed at the GBP] might be affected by it’, Zautashvili told OC Media.
Calls for Parliament to intervene have also been voiced by a number of non-governmental organisations since the protests began. The joint statement from GYLA and EMC followed a 4 September press-release from Transparency International — Georgia, who called the GPB’s decision ‘vague’, and said it risked discriminating against individual employees. The group also urged Parliament to act ‘within the scope of their responsibilities’.
The Coalition for Media Advocacy, which unites 12 local organisations, also criticised the Public Broadcaster’s management and also urged MPs to act. On 3 September, they recommended that the GPB ‘abstain from making unjustified decisions’ and requested Parliament to inquire ‘why the Board of Trustees failed to meet its duties’ to oversee the management’s decisions.
On 5 September, GYLA brought a court case against the GPB for refusing to share their technical re-equipment plan, for which the management intends to borrow more that ₾40 million ($16 million). GPB’s management responded that such a document does not exist yet, hence they could not share anything.
In a 9 September article for Media Checker, analyst Lasha Kavtaradze said the GPB's news programme, Moambe, did not give any in-depth coverage of the controversy sparked by their own management's announcement, airing the reports late in their main evening news reports.
Controversy at the GPB
The GPB has been dogged by controversy in recent years, including accusations of bias towards the government. In June, the Coalition for Media Advocacy accused the station’s management of consulting on whether or not to air an investigative film about December’s school stabbings outside of its board. According to the Coalition, GPB’s failure to decide the issue independently set a ‘dangerous precedent [of] self-censorship’.
Freedom House’s 2018 Freedom in the World report named ‘politicised editorial policies at Georgian Public Broadcasting’ and the ‘hiring of numerous people considered [former PM Bidzina] Ivanishvili allies, some of whom were installed in senior positions’ at the television among the reasons the country’s rating declined. The claims were challenged by GPB Director Vasil Maghlaperidze as well as members of the ruling Georgian Dream Party.
In 2012, Maghlaperidze served as deputy director of Metskhre Arkhi, a TV channel belonging to Ivanishvili, and has also worked for Ivanishvili’s GDS channel. He has been accused by the opposition European Georgia Party of maintaining non-transparent connections with the ruling party.
In February, more than 70 Georgian NGOs called for his resignation and for an external audit to be conducted to examine the broadcaster’s work over the previous year, as a report by the State Audit Office identified significant financial and managerial transgressions.
Last June, the GPB shut down two joint programmes with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, ‘Tsiteli Zona’ (Red Zone) and ‘InterVIEW’. The decision was labelled by the ensuing protest rally a ‘crackdown on critical shows’. Plans announced in February to suspend all political talk shows, citing a reorganisation of the station and upgrade of equipment, were reversed following public outcry.