“A free press can of course be good or bad but without freedom it will never be anything but bad.” Albert Camus.
They’re discovering in the USA how much fun Saakashvili can be off the cuff. Confronted with that ever-nagging question about freedom of the press in Georgia, even in L.A., Misha blurted, “that’s total bullshit!” to some “naive foreigner,” Jeffery Gedmin, president and CEO of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, who moderated a panel at the Milken Institute last week.
“It’s an easy cliché to sell,” he added. “…for your station for instance.”
Few things rattle Misha more than criticism about Georgia’s press. The west can float Georgian banks to keep the country from failing, it can support the professional development of the armed forces, bankroll umpteen social welfare and infrastructure development programs and even state “although provoked by Russia, Georgia started the war by shelling Tskhinvali,” but it better shut up about the press because the fact is, the press is a lot freer in Georgia than it is in Iran and North Korea, although not quite as free as Nepal and Ukraine.
It’s like when Freedom House ranks Georgia 123, barely making the “partly free” threshold, everybody else automatically assumes press is restricted or something. And from Misha’s point of view, they are simply uninformed. As the President pointed out, “in Georgia, there are no taboos; there are no libel, defamation laws.” Is this not freedom? Don’t forget, last month, a television station run by Misha’s friend broadcast a fake report that Russia was invading the country without properly warning the public it was a fictitious story. Nobody wagged a finger because there is no law against irresponsible journalism. Rustavi-2 TV broadcasts “total bullshit” stories about the Gali region in Abkhazia, because they can, and are encouraged to, as these stories bolster the nation’s position on the conflict situation, a bipartisan view shared by nearly every Georgian.
Both Misha and the opposition believe a free press means having a subjective media outlet that supports one or the other view. For Saakashvili, the fact that there are newspapers and TV stations that rag on the government is evidence that the press is free. Remember, freedom is relative. A journalist may be free to investigate a government official just as that official is free to blackmail that journalist, like when the Adjara Ministry of Internal Affairs tried to blackmail investigative journalist, Tedo Jorbenadze of Gazeti Batumelebi. The problem here, however, is trying to get the Interior ministry to investigate a complaint against itself.
All puns aside, freedom often comes with a price. In Georgia, media can be critical of the government because this is a western orientated democratic society. Just be careful when you take pictures of cops beating people because they may beat you too, and smash up your means of making a living to boot. I’m not just talking about Justyna. Coppers also reportedly assaulted Ana Khavtasi and Nino Komakhidze of Versia newspaper for taking pictures of coppers beating protesters. The US Human Rights Report on Georgia documents numerous cases of assaults and harassment of journalists, which is freedom turned around. Cops don’t get indicted for beating journalists in Georgia.
TV broadcasters also practice the freedom of not airing investigative reports, particularly when these investigations implicate government officials. There were far more investigative reports during the Shevardnadze administration than now. Ironically, it was Rustavi-2 that produced these in their program, 60 Minutes, which disappeared after Saakashvili became president. Studio Monitor, an investigative studio, is often turned away at the top networks and forced to sell productions to pro-opposition stations, which have limited coverage. But Studio Monitor is not an opposition studio, is funded by western donors and is made up of a team of professionals who clearly understand how important a journalist’s role is to a healthy democracy, which is what the current administration claims to be dedicated to building.
While we often complain of the lack of transparency when it comes to who owns what station, we must remember that freedom also means the freedom not to divulge information too. Supposedly, something called RAAK Georgia Holding S.A owns 90% of Imedi Holding, but nobody knows who RAAK is. Of course, anybody is free to own a business so why should people be concerned that a major shareholder of Rustavi-2, Davit Bezhuashvili, is the brother of the Chief of Intelligence, Gela Bezhuashvili?
Misha is right when he calls us naïve foreigners. The west has been naively dumping loads of money to train Georgian journalists for years and for some reason they still plagiarize work, ignore ethic codes and continue to ask “Do you like Georgia?” when they interview foreigners. You can blame their editors and contemptible salaries to a point but the fact is the system is rotten. It’s post-Soviet and always will be until the concept of a genuine independent press – a media neither influenced by the government or politics or economic control – is introduced. The problem is that freedom is a threat to the other freedom.