Journalists from Adjara’s public broadcaster held a street protest on Wednesday against their new director, who they accused of censorship.
‘We work for the public, not for the director’, the journalists working for Adjara’s Public Broadcaster said in a statement read aloud during a demonstration outside their office in Batumi on 4 December.
Media workers at the publicly funded company in the Autonomous Republic of Adjara have claimed the broadcaster’s recently elected director, Giorgi Kokhreidze, has attempted to interfere with their editorial independence in order to slant coverage to benefit the ruling Georgian Dream party.
Kokhreidze was elected by a majority of the broadcaster’s five-member advisory board. The three members that endorsed his candidacy were nominated to the board by Georgian Dream.
‘Count us’ banners held by the staff of the Public Broadcaster read during their protest on Wednesday, indicating that those who were disappointed in the new director were not in a minority, as Kokhreidze had claimed.
Many of the staff working on news and TV programmes suspected Kokhreidze’s election would mean pro-government censorship in the Public Broadcaster.
The conflict between Kokhreidze and the staff reached a head after he repeatedly insisted the newsroom was ‘biased’ in their reporting and ‘lacked balance’ in their talk shows.
In February, the OSCE/ODIHR mission that monitored Georgia’s October-November 2018 presidential elections described Adjara’s Public Broadcaster as ‘the only TV station that offered viewers a general comparison of contestant platforms’.
Protesting staff said on 4 December that they had become increasingly alarmed by the prospect of political censorship when, on his first day on the job, Director Giorgi Kokhreidze blamed his own staff for public officials boycotting their programmes.
‘You create an atmosphere after which people refuse to come on the programme […] If someone doesn’t come to your house, whose fault is it — yours or theirs?’, Kokhreidze asked an anchor during a live broadcast on 22 November.
Kokhreidze’s criticism of his newsroom came after a series of accusations levelled at them by members of the ruling party.
On 14 November, former Speaker of the Georgian Parliament and top Georgian Dream official Irakli Kobakhidze called on Teona Bakuradze, the anchor of prime time news programme The Main, to ‘distance’ herself from the United National Movement (UNM), Georgia’s former ruling party.
A month earlier, the leader of the parliamentary majority, Gia Volski, threatened to cancel the parliamentary accreditation of an Adjara TV reporter because she had ‘chased after’ him for answers.
Back in July, the chair of the ruling party and former Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili called Adjara TV ‘a branch of Rustavi 2’, which was, at the time, the main opposition-leaning TV channel.
Rustavi 2 has since toned down its criticism of the ruling party after former owner Kibar Khalvashi was given ownership of the channel in July.
[Read more on OC Media: Georgia’s Rustavi 2 TV transferred to previous owner after ECHR ruling]
The last seven months
In their statement on 4 December, staff said they had been closely following developments at the Public Broadcaster for the last seven months, ‘since the impeachment of [previous] Director Natia Kapanadze’.
Natia Kapanadze was removed from her position by the Public Broadcaster’s Advisory Board in April, a move that media watchdogs both in and outside of Georgia deemed a risk to the company’s editorial policy.
[Read more on OC Media: Natia Kapanadze dismissed as Adjara TV director]
During the protest on 4 December, journalists demanded Kokhreidze stop levelling ‘baseless accusations’ against them and stop ‘blackmailing’ them.
Accusations of blackmail surfaced when Kokhreidze claimed that the channel’s deputy director, Natia Zoidze, ‘had given away Adjara TV’s archive’. He claimed that she was liable to be criminally prosecuted for the act.
Kokhreidze vowed on 30 November to come forward with more details about his accusation ‘soon’.
Natia Zoidze and other journalists stated on Wednesday that the first thing the new director did after being elected was to seek to revisit Zoidze’s contract and reduce her control over the broadcaster’s editorial line.
Zoidze had been filling in as acting director since Kapanadze was dismissed in April.
‘I smell censorship’
‘Why don’t I want to enter the studio anymore? The answer is simple — I smell censorship’, Adjara TV anchor Teona Bakuradze wrote on Facebook a day before the rally.
Following 4 December’s protest, Georgian Public Defender Nino Lomjaria said she was concerned over the ‘alarming’ claims made by the journalists. Lomjaria warned that the ongoing conflict would affect media freedom in Georgia.
Earlier this week, representatives of the Georgian Charter of Journalistic Ethics held a meeting with Kokhreidze and members of the Advisory Board of Adjara TV to discuss the fears and expectations of journalists working there.
Charter head Giorgi Mgeladze told OC Media that within days of Kokhreidze’s election, they were informed by staff of directives from the management on specific programming which made them think the new director ‘came to meddle in the editorial policy’.
‘Both the board of advisers and the director told us that these fears are groundless, that they are not going to change the critical policy of the channel’, Mgeladze said. ‘But, was I convinced? I wasn’t.’
‘I think that the editorial policy of Adjara TV is endangered’, he added.
He said he believed the Georgian Government may be involved in Kokhreidze’s election.
‘The previous board wasn’t able to elect a director and suddenly, when the new board of advisors came along, the majority of whom are backed by the government, the director was elected without a hitch’, he said.
He said they agreed that the Charter would be involved if questions arose regarding pressure exerted on journalists and that complaints regarding the broadcaster’s content must be discussed within the mechanism of self-regulation.
‘We told the director that he cannot intervene in the content, the law doesn’t allow him to. Moreover, it’s not lawful to intervene in media content’, Mgeladze said.
Freedom of the press
Georgia ranked 60th among 180 countries in the 2019 world press freedom index by Reporters Without Borders.
The report describes the Georgian media environment as ‘pluralist but still very polarised’.
‘The reforms of recent years have brought improvements in media ownership transparency and satellite TV pluralism, but owners often still call the shots on editorial content’, the report reads.
‘For the past 10 years, every government has tried to create a favourable media environment for themselves’, Mgeladze said. ‘Governments are always trying to empower loyal outlets and win the elections this way. Georgian Dream is no exception.’