The constitution and law provide for freedom of speech and press, and citizens generally were free to exercise these rights, although there were allegations the government at times did not adequately protect them. Journalists, NGOs, and the international community raised concerns about the environment for media pluralism in light of developments involving the country’s four leading television broadcasters, including its leading station, Rustavi 2. Parliament’s failure to select all nine members of the recomposed board of the Georgian Public Broadcaster for a second consecutive year amplified concerns about the politicization of the selection process and its negative impact on the ability of state-funded television and radio outlets to fulfill their programming responsibilities.
Freedom of Speech and Expression: While individuals were usually free to criticize the government without reprisal, democracy NGOs expressed concern that government and former government officials’ public criticism of civil society, including calls for investigations of individual NGO leaders, led to self-censorship by journalists and civil society actors.
Press and Media Freedoms: Independent media were very active and expressed a wide variety of views. At the same time, media remained politically polarized and provided the public only limited access to objective, neutral news.
Television was the most influential medium and the primary source of information on current events for approximately 85 percent of the population. Major television stations expressed a political bias, albeit to a lesser degree than in previous years. Government officials periodically criticized certain media outlets, alleging a pro-opposition bias.
The availability of information on television station ownership and finances improved. The International Research for Exchanges Board noted that “ambiguities surrounding the ownership of national broadcasters no longer exist” due to legal requirements for media outlets to submit detailed reports summarizing their activities and funding. Transparency International Georgia asserted the data broadcasters provided under the new requirements still lacked sufficient clarity, particularly with respect to identifying their financing.
Some media outlets, watchdog groups, and NGOs expressed concern, however, over a restrictive environment for media pluralism and political meddling in the media, to which government critics were particularly vulnerable.
There were concerns over government interference with the country’s most widely viewed television station, Rustavi 2, and with judicial independence. Rustavi 2 alleged government involvement in an August 5 decision by a Tbilisi judge to freeze the company’s assets and shares pending the resolution of a lawsuit filed by one of its previous owners. On August 10, a group of seven leading NGOs stated that the court order in the Rustavi 2 case failed to meet the standard of reasonable doubt and caused a disproportionate restriction on the station’s rights. The NGOs also noted that the “seemingly private legal dispute” raised questions about political influence. In a separate statement on August 10, GYLA questioned the rationale and proportionality of the court’s ruling against Rustavi 2, noting that it failed to consider the “irrevocable damage” that it risked inflicting on the public interest, given the station’s large viewership. In mid-October, a former president and opposition leader allegedly called for a “revolutionary scenario” to resist the court decision, according to recordings released on a foreign website.
On November 3, the court ruled in favor of the former Rustavi 2 owner who filed the lawsuit, granting him 100 percent of the company’s shares. It subsequently issued an interim injunction appointing temporary administrators to replace Rustavi 2’s director general and chief financial officer. In issuing the injunction, the judge questioned Rustavi 2’s editorial policy and provided the new managers, who had a stake in the previous owner’s suit, authority to change the station’s journalists and take legal actions. On November 30, an appellate court overturned the injunction, allowing the director general and chief financial officer to retain their posts.
Although the government contended the Rustavi 2 case was a legal dispute between private parties, the lower court’s actions were widely seen as an attempt to change the editorial policy of Rustavi 2, which often espoused views sympathetic to the opposition UNM party. For many, the ruling also called into question the government’s commitment to media freedom, political pluralism, and judicial independence. On November 6, a group of diplomatic missions in Tbilisi issued a joint statement expressing concern over the decision to appoint temporary managers at Rustavi 2, noting it raised “serious questions about the independence of the judiciary and the actual degree of freedom of the media” in the country.
With the exception of the president, government figures generally downplayed the developments involving Rustavi 2.
Violence and Harassment: There were a few reports of physical and verbal assaults on journalists by police. On September 15, during a visit by the prime minister to the city of Ozurgeti, a police officer allegedly pushed aside a Maestro TV journalist for asking the prime minister an “inconvenient” question and threatened to “remove” and “evaporate” him. The Ministry of Internal Affairs announced the general inspector would look into the matter. The officer involved subsequently stated he had not known the man was a reporter and alleged the journalist did not have his media badge. GYLA criticized the ministry for subsequently dismissing the journalist’s allegations without conducting an investigation.
Officials also continued to harass media outlets verbally. For example, during a press conference in March, the prime minister accused major media outlets of insufficient reporting on government projects, sowing “chaos,” and “creating an absolutely different reality” from the actual situation in the country.
The ownership dispute of Rustavi-2 refocused attention on the July 2014 death of one of the founders of Rustavi 2 television, Erosi Kitsmarishvili. While the investigation, which remained underway, treated the death as a suicide, Kitsmarishvili’s relatives questioned this working assumption, noting Kitsmarishvili was one of the few individuals who knew the detailed ownership history of the media outlet.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: While there were no reports of the government directly or indirectly censoring media, the abrupt removal of the popular television anchors from Imedi TV and the Georgian Public Broadcaster (GPB) in late August and early September raised questions about political interference in the media among leading NGOs, media professionals, and some members of the ruling government coalition.
On August 29, the country’s second leading television broadcaster, Imedi TV, abruptly announced the cancellation of two popular political talk programs and the removal of Inga Grigolia, the shows’ well-known host. Grigolia asserted the programs’ cancellation and her abrupt removal were politically motivated, noting the programs had been the station’s highest-rated shows and that she had received no prior indication that Imedi’s managers were unhappy with them. On August 31, President Margvelashvili’s administration characterized developments in the media as alarming in the run up to a new political season and ahead of the 2016 parliamentary elections. In early September, Imedi TV announced it was only suspending the programs while it reformatted them and found new hosts. The country’s broadcast media regulator publicly pointed out that the station’s license obliged it to broadcast social-political programs.
Nongovernmental Impact: Media observers, NGO representatives, and opposition politicians alleged that a former prime minister continued to exert a powerful influence over the government and judiciary, including in the lower court decisions against owners of the Rustavi 2 television station.
Media in the separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia remained tightly restricted by de facto authorities and Russian occupying forces.
Actions to Expand Press Freedoms: The switchover from analog to digital television broadcasting, completed in the early fall, resulted in a simplified authorization process for television broadcasters. The switchover expanded the number of television channels that could be broadcast on one frequency, thereby allowing expanded creation and distribution of content. The coverage area of small television broadcasters also expanded, allowing them to broadcast nationally and allowing national broadcasters to provide different content to specific regions. Signal transmission costs decreased, allowing broadcasters to increase and diversify their content.
Outside Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports that it monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority. During the year Freedom House rated the country’s internet freedom status as “free” and the Georgia-based Institute for Development of Freedom of Information stated that there had not been any reported cases of online news outlets being subjected to government pressure. NGOs criticized the oversight of such monitoring as insufficient, however. According to International Telecommunication Union statistics, approximately 49 percent of the population used the internet in 2014. High prices for services and inadequate infrastructure limited access, particularly for individuals in rural areas or with low incomes.
Insufficient information was available about internet freedom in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
There were no confirmed reports of government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.