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New election rules will feature media regulation, Georgian Dream MP says

5 August 2019
MP Irakli Kobakhidze, Speaker Archil Talakvadze, and Chair of the Central Election Commission Tamar Zvhania during the 5 August Working Group meeting (Retrieved from Talakvadze’s official FB page)

To the chagrin of critics, the ruling party has recently announced that their proposed package of electoral reforms include regulations on campaign finance rules and political ads in media. 

On Monday, 5 August, Georgian Dream member and parliamentary speaker Archil Talakvadze presented a set of several general proposals to regulate the elections.

The full details of the amendment are not yet available to the public nor to all the watchdog organisations involved in the Special Working Group on Electoral Legislation Reform organised by the Georgian Parliament.

However, several proposals from the draft law concerning the regulation of media have been released.

After the meeting within the Working Group, Irakli Kobakhidze, Georgian Dream’s Executive Secretary, confirmed to journalists that they want to regulate ‘hate speech and xenophobia’ during the election campaign.

Georgian Dream leaders cited ‘recommendations from the OSCE’ as a confirmation that Georgia needed to tackle the problem.

Among their 27 recommendations after the autumn 2018 presidential elections released in February, the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) of the OSCE noted that ‘contrary to international good practice, comprehensive legislation on hate speech’ was absent in Georgia.

‘Relevant authorities should be in a position to review potential cases of hate speech and where appropriate, apply sanctions in a timely manner’, the ODIHR report read.

Levan Natroshvili, the program manager of the advocacy group Transparency International — Georgia, told OC Media that while Georgian Dream have not yet come up with a definition of ‘hate speech’ there is nevertheless, ‘a risk of defining it too broadly, triggering a serious problem for freedom of expression’.

According to Natroshvili, hate speech is already regulated in Georgia ‘[according to] the broader American standards’ and that if need be, the media can practice ‘the mechanism of self-regulation’.

Among other ‘problematic’ initiatives, Natroshvili says, the ruling party also plan to oblige the media publicise the prices they charge for airing or publishing political ads before the start of a given election campaign — something they ‘won’t be able to alter later’.

There would also be a limit on the types of political advertising allowed on air, with a maximum of 25% of the air-time given to political advertisements allocated to attack ads.

Media organisations would be ‘obliged’ to police the content of political advertising, Natroshvili said. If they air anything that is ruled to be hate speech, if they exceed attack ad limits, or if in any other way they are found to be ‘in violation of the law’ they would be fined ‘double the price of the ad’.

'It is unclear on what basis the ruling party decided that 25% negative ads is acceptable but 26% should be a violation’, Tamar Chikhladze, a journalist and anchor at the independent TV channel Pirveli, told OC Media. ‘However they rationalise it, it will still be a limitation placed on critical expression’.

‘[It] looks like the government that had actively used negative ads reminding [the public] about “nine years of bloody rule” [under the United National Movement] are now wary some could use similar reminders against them after [the violent police actions on] the night of 20–21 June’, Chikhladze said.

[Read more on OC Media: 5 violations by police during the Tbilisi clash]

The package and preliminary reactions

Talakvadze confirmed on Monday that they still intend to axe the minimum threshold (currently 3% of the total vote) for parties to enter parliament and replace the mixed electoral system with a fully proportional one for the 2020 elections — something they had promised in June.

Georgian Dream also offered to revise regulations on election campaign financing and promised ‘better’ state financing to smaller parties, including any party that would enter the parliament.

Talakvadze also said they want to ban political parties from transferring free media airtime allocated for them to another party.

Members of Georgian Dream had been complaining in recent months about smaller ‘satellite’ or ‘one-man’ parties within the opposition Power in Unity coalition yielding resources allocated to them to the formerly ruling United National Movement (UNM).

Additionally, the ruling party said they want to staff Electoral Commissions at all levels with 13 members, of which seven would be from political parties with ‘the majority from the opposition groups’. Who the other six members would be has not yet been announced.

In their February report, the ODIHR called for ‘more balanced’ political representation’ in Electoral Commissions — the bodies which administer elections throughout Georgia — and for ensuring that ‘state-funded resources for contestants are not used for the benefit of other candidates’.

Members of Parliament from the UNM and European Georgia confirmed their support for moving to the fully proportional system but indicated they were critical of other proposals made by Georgian Dream.

Tina Bokuchava, an MP from the UNM, told media on 5 August that her party found the proposals for ‘regulating airtime in media’ and a ban on election blocks ‘problematic’.

The UNM has been critical of the ban on election blocs that Georgian Dream had attached to their offer to replace the mixed majoritarian system of elections.

Otar Kakhidze, an MP from European Georgia, told media before the Working Group session on 5 August that they also wanted the ruling party to address forms of voter pressure and intimidation.

According to Kakhidze, during the last elections, the government tried to pressure voters by removing critics of the government from social assistance programs, tracking voters outside the polling stations, and instructing voters to show them a photograph of their ballot choice after exiting the polling station.

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