fbpx

Georgian speaker responds to OC Media with allegations of ‘skewed reporting’

13 September 2023
Shalva Papuashvili. Photo via Parliament website

In a letter sent to OC Media on 13 September, published in full at the end of the text, Papuashvili accused the organisation of engaging in ‘skewed journalism’ and maintaining poor journalistic standards.

[Read more on OC Media: Speaker of Georgian parliament pressured OC Media’s donors after failure to place op-ed

As the ruling party doubled down on Papuashvili’s intervention, a second organisation, local media advocacy group Mediaombudsman, reported that they had also been subject to similar pressure from the authorities. 

Natia Kapanadze, the director of Mediaombudsman, claimed that Kakha Bekauri, the head of the Georgian National Communications Commission (GNCC), had previously contacted the group’s donors to encourage them to stop financially supporting the organisation. 

While Kapanadze did not name any donor organisations, she told OC Media that the incident took place in 2021. 

‘I personally had a case when the head of Communications Commission — and I know about it firsthand — personally wrote to my donor and requested they halt [our] financing because we […] have been critical of the activities of the Commission for years’, Kapanadze told Georgian TV channel Formula.

Since its inception in 2021, Mediaombudsman has functioned as a watchdog group monitoring and commenting on developments regarding media freedom in Georgia, including the GNCC’s decisions. Mediaombudsman has also legally represented 24 journalists who were prevented from engaging in their work by parliamentary security services and law enforcement agents during the anti–foreign agent law protests in Tbilisi in March.

Advertisements

Prior to setting up the watchdog group, Kapanadze was dismissed from her position as head of Adjara TV, in a move that she and others stated was directly related to increasing government pressure on Adjara’s public broadcaster. 

Ruling party chair: Papuashvili acted against ‘harsh censorship’

Confronted with questions regarding Papuashvili’s decision to criticise OC Media’s editorial decisions to the organisation’s donors, the chair of the ruling Georgian Dream party, Irakli Kobakhidze, praised Papuashvili’s actions. 

Kobakhidze, a constitutional scholar, repeated Papuashvili’s allegation that the ruling party’s parliamentary speaker had experienced ‘censorship’ when OC Media declined to publish his opinion piece. 

‘Shalva Papuashvili did a very good thing. When there is censorship in a specific media outlet — and in harsh forms, in absolutely unimaginable forms — the donors, of course, should have information about it’.

Kobakhidze has himself been criticised for his troubled relationship with Georgian media, not least due to a heated interview with opposition-aligned TV channel Pirveli in 2019. Since 2019, the ruling party has increasingly refused to engage with independent and opposition-aligned TV stations. 

Since February, Irakli Kobakhidze and Shalva Papuashvili have also repeatedly accused Western donor organisations of funding ‘extremism’ and ‘polarisation’ in Georgia — a reference to liberal groups critical of the Georgian Dream government. Meanwhile, as Georgian watchdog group the Democracy Research Initiative recently reported, the government has sustained its policy of leniency towards actual extremist and ‘far-right violent groups’.

Pro-Russian extremist group Alt Info outside the parliament in Tbilisi, on 8 July 2023. Image: Mariam Nikuradze/OC Media

On 12 September, Georgia’s Charter of Journalistic Ethics, a union and journalistic self-regulatory group, condemned Papuashvili’s letter to OC Media’s donors as ‘further evidence of how the government attempts to create problems for free media’.

‘We call on the ruling party to stop repressing free, unbiased media and to support a secure environment for free media to function’.

A day later, Papuashvili was also criticised by opposition MPs Salome Samadashvili (Lelo), Ana Buchukuri (For Georgia) and Paata Manjgaladze (Strategy Aghmashenebeli), with Buchukuri describing the move as a blunder by the party, based on the assumption that they could engage with international media as they do with local outlets. 

‘Imagine how dire the state of this country’s ruling party must be, to pay to get their articles written [for them], and then to fail [to find] any internationally reputable outlet ready to publish Papuashvili’s lies’, said Samadashvili. 

An official response to a ‘virtually unknown’ outlet

After news of the Georgian parliamentary speaker’s communication with OC Media’s donors gained widespread coverage in local media, Papuashvili’s office contacted OC Media requesting that the organisation publish his letter in response. The unedited text is presented in full below. 

In his letter, Papuashvili rejected the accusation that he had attempted to influence or punish OC Media by reaching out to their donor organisations, while describing the outlet as an ‘online platform [occupying] an infinitesimally small space in Georgian media’ and ‘virtually unknown to the public’. 

Having refused a follow-up offer to be interviewed by OC Media, Papuashvili went on to praise the Georgian government’s record on media freedom, claiming that his party has brought ‘unprecedented freedom and pluralism to Georgian and foreign journalists working in this country’.

In recent years, which include Papuashvili’s time as speaker, Georgia has seen a significant fall in the country’s media freedom ranking by Reporters Without Borders — from 60 in 2021 to 77 in 2023. 

The deteriorating trend has also been confirmed by international media advocacy group Article 19, which, in their 2021 report, moved Georgia from ‘open’ to ‘less restricted’. 

Similar messages regarding Georgia’s deteriorating media freedom have been repeated in reports and statements from other groups, including the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Reporters without Borders, Amnesty International, and Freedom House.

Journalists hold banners reading 'No to the Russian Law' outside the Parliament Bureau session on 27 February. Image: Mariam Nikuradze/OC Media

Below, OC Media offers readers Speaker Papuashvili’s letter, preceded by a clarification added on 13 September in response to Mr Papuashvili's concerns regarding its publication.

We acknowledge that in an unfortunate miscommunication, our office inadvertently suggested that Mr Papuashvili’s response to our news might be published as a separate article rather than within a news story. This was not our intention, but we are responsible for the misunderstanding and apologise for the mistake. The speaker's response is printed in full below, and has not been edited.

‘Letter to the editor:

In your editorial piece from September 12, you have accused me of “an apparent bid to influence or punish the outlet for declining to publish an opinion piece”. Nothing could be further from the truth, and I would like to elaborate why your statements are problematic in terms of your own declared principles and values.

Media freedom is a cherished value for Georgia and for the governing Georgian Dream party. The media environment that we, as a Party, have helped to create in the last decade brought unprecedented freedom and pluralism to Georgian and foreign journalists working in this country. This is, also, why, among other reasons, your outlet is stationed in Tbilisi and not elsewhere, enjoying all the benefits of the freedom of media in this country. You are also very well aware of the diversity and vibrancy of Georgia’s media landscape, which sets it apart from the heavily controlled media environments of the past decades.

Commitment to the diversity and freedom of opinion gave me the initial idea, a few weeks ago, to offer you an opinion piece for publication. Such pieces are offered to other outlets as well and they provide space for them. Even if your online platform occupies an infinitesimally small space in Georgian media and is virtually unknown to the public, I decided to engage you as well, even if your blunt and near-automatic critical reaction to any of Georgian government’s decisions and policies has long been apparent to anyone who reads your publications. I thought this goodwill gesture would be a good step for cooperation.

However, your rejection of the said opinion piece proved your intolerance of the alternative opinion. Even if you admit that you have only seen the title and a fraction of the op-ed text, you quickly concluded that the piece was not suitable as it was not “factually sound” and did not represent the “honest expression of an idea”, whatever this last statement may mean. You also state that “[t]he argument being presented appeared to directly contradict the actions of Georgian Dream’s government”, thus reserving the authority of supreme judgement of what represents the ultimate truth and genuine reality. This is very far from what professional journalism is about, especially when OC Media tries to posit itself as a guardian of integrity, justice, and inclusivity, quoted as your guiding values on your website.

Moreover, you misinterpret my communication with your donors, which was not about to “influence or punish… for declining to publish an opinion piece” but, rather, about informing the donors about your questionable journalistic approach. The letter actually read: “While we respect OC Media’s journalistic independence, we find such a rejection of offer of publication, for which no comprehensible explanation was provided, to be a decision taken against the principles of transparency, pluralism, and diversity. While media freedom in Georgia is widely guaranteed and respected by the Government, it is disappointing that a media outfit, funded by Georgia’s Western partners for promoting democratic and liberal values, rejects an opinion piece they disagree with.”

So, in your typical skewed reporting, this very appropriate letter to the donors has become a “clear attack on the organization’s editorial independence, and freedom of the press more generally”. How is such inference even possible, unless your default position is to automatically condemn and vilify anything that the Georgian authorities ever say or do?

Editorial independence should not be confused with censorship, not allowing a differing opinion appear on your pages even for once. You write that “[t]he editorial board was guided by a desire to ensure they best served and informed their readers”. How can you best serve your readers by cutting out an alternative point of view?

The rest of your article is the usual litany of unsupported accusations against the Government, copying the message boxes of Georgia’s radical opposition parties, while, at the same time, miraculously hoping to position yourselves as an unbiased media outlet. Unfortunately, this malpractice is not exclusive to your outlet but seems a universal and very regrettable trend.

Let me assure you that your editorial independence and freedom of expression will be guaranteed and protected by the Georgian state. I only wish you to aspire to better journalistic standards.’

Read in Georgian on On.ge.