By Patrick Norén, Research Fellow at MCERC
With thanks to Nino Bakradze, Mariam Nikuradze, Will Cathcart, Salome,
Giorgi, Mariam Gersamia and the Media and Communication Educational
and Research Center, and Leiden University.
Polarised and politicised by the powers-that-be on the one hand, yet tentatively buoyed by international funding and a younger crop of talented journalists rising to the surface, Georgian journalism finds itself at a crossroads. The dangers that journalists the world over face in the form of verbal and physical violence are well-known and well-understood. This interview-based research paper written on behalf of the Media and Communication Educational and Research Center (MCERC) will build upon a 2021 report written by MCERC’s Mariam Gersamia and Maia Toradze to investigate what other limitations Georgian journalism faces which are stifling its potential to be an effective agent of accountability. For this research, I contacted and interviewed five Georgian or Georgia-based journalists to gain their insights into the realities of working in the industry. I spoke to a TV journalist, an investigative journalist, an online and photography journalist, a foreign freelancer, and a media-monitor, which I believe can be viewed as meta-journalism.
I framed this research through the lens of limitations for a very deliberate reason. By viewing the state of journalism in Georgia in this way, we retrain our focus onto the ideal conditions which are most conducive to a healthy media environment. Viewing realities as “threats” risks being a rather blunt instrument for analysing complex problems, while focussing instead on problems as limitations allows us to assess how these problems frequently operate on a sliding scale of intensity, as well as stressing how such environments are complicated and interconnected matrices for which there are no simple, silver bullet solutions. My conclusions are that the most significant limitations on Georgian journalism are polarisation, bad quality and a poor reputation, poor societal media literacy and journalistic education, access to information, verbal and physical threats, and financing. While the situation is so complex as to preclude simple solutions, my biggest recommendation would be to expand society-based public awareness programmes not on journalism itself per se, but why critical journalism is important.
Outside of the Baltic States, journalism across the former Soviet Union remains extremely problematic, and Georgia is no exception. One will often hear from these countries that “journalism is dangerous”, “journalism is difficult”, “journalists are persecuted”, and so on, but one will also be left want of chronological developments, concrete examples, or in-depth testimonies. One will have the skeleton of fact without the flesh of reality. While there are indeed some exceptions to this - think of the widely reported violence against journalists in Tbilisi on 5th July 2021, or the total destruction of the remnants of critical media in Russia after its renewed invasion of Ukraine on 24th February 2022 - I wanted to understand the structural, societal, political, and even cultural factors at play in Georgia which inhibit the potential of the country’s journalism.
Last year, the Media and Communication Educational and Research Center (MCERC) conducted their own in-depth study called ‘Media Environment Before and After 2021 Elections: Threats and Supportive Instruments’, which dealt predominantly with polarisation within journalism and violence towards journalists. This shorter report can be considered an addendum to this work by Mariam Gersamia and Maia Toradze, offering alternative and new perspectives on the state of journalism in Georgia. While polarisation and violence are among the most well-known threats to Georgian journalism, I would however like to approach this report through the lens of limitations. Framing the discussion thus allows us to focus not so much on the threat per se, but rather how this threat negatively impacts journalists’ work and to assess to what extent one larger limitation may fuel sublimitations, overall complicating the maze of difficulties that journalists face.
Indeed, while very specific threats do exist, viewing these rather as limitations allows us to simultaneously stress the conditions that are most important for a healthy and effective media environment. For example, viewing polarisation as a limiting factor on the efficacy of journalism - rather than an out-and-out threat - allows us to better conceive of the necessary steps to be taken in order to reduce that limiting factor’s potency and thereby allow journalism to be as effective an instrument of information dissemination and accountability as it possibly can be. To this end, the question I hope to answer with this report is the following: “What are the greatest limitations that Georgian journalism faces today, and what can be done about them?”
To research this topic, I decided to conduct interviews with five different types of Georgian or Georgia-based journalists. These were: Nino Bakradze, an investigative journalist and founder of the investigative journalism website iFact; Mariam Nikuradze, the co-founder and director of the online outlet OC Media; Will Cathcart, a Tbilisi-based American freelance journalist; and two others - a TV journalist and a media monitor - who wished to remain anonymous. I will be referring to them as Salome and Giorgi, respectively.
In this report, I conclude that the greatest limitations facing Georgian journalism are polarisation, quality and reputational issues, societal engagement with and understanding of journalism, access to information, physical and verbal threats, and financing. Differing somewhat from MCERC’s report which focussed on polarisation and violence, the third limitation in this list struck me as a particularly pernicious limiting factor which requires close attention. Tackling all these limitations can in my opinion best be achieved by first addressing the problem of societal engagement with and understanding of journalism, from which other solutions will naturally flow.
Unlike several post-Soviet countries - namely Russia, Belarus, Azerbaijan, and Turkmenistan - Georgia does enjoy a certain degree of freedom of speech. The media environment is lively and pluralistic, with media outlets ranging from the most extreme pro-government channels such as Imedi, to the most pro-opposition channels such as Mtavari. Indeed, there are also TV channels in between, such as those for which Salome works for. This pluralistic environment, however, if vulnerable to weak media literacy among the audience, can backfire and open itself up to political exploitation, as is happening in Georgia currently. As noted by Gersamia and Toradze, ‘Scholars share the belief that today’s fragmented wide range of choices in the media environment, creates an environment, where civilians can choose media that strengthens their already established political beliefs and ignore alternative views’ (p.14). This inadvertently creates two separate echo chambers of opinion, politics, or even worldview. This weakness inherent in a pluralistic media environment is being deliberately exploited by the Georgian government, pushing the poles even further apart in order to try and discredit journalism and journalists of all stripes. This is exacerbated by the issue of TV channel ownership, which I will discuss later. This has been a gradually worsening problem since 2018/19.
In the run up to the 2018 presidential elections the pro-governmental TV channel Imedi announced that they were switching to a “special regime”, according to Mariam Nikuradze, which, in the words of Imedi, changed its ‘regular broadcasting schedule, so that the [UNM] regime does not return’. The then leading opposition channel Mtavari, then did very much the same thing but to benefit the other side. This started the gradual slide to an increasingly polarised media environment which has not stopped since then. One particularly infamous example of this polarisation was when opposition Mtavari, during their 24-hour TV coverage of the arrest of the opposition leader Nika Melia, changed the surnames of all government officials on screen to “Gavrilov”. In June 2019, the ruling Georgian Dream party invited the Russian communist party MP Sergei Gavrilov to deliver a speech from the speaker’s chair in parliament during a meeting of the Inter-parliamentary Assembly on Orthodoxy, triggering mass protests.
Pro-government and pro-opposition media pushing political agendas rather than delivering a quality journalistic product harms the quality of journalism and in turn damages the whole industry’s reputation among the audience, thereby limiting the impact of what good quality journalism there is.
Another aspect of this polarisation is the type of narratives and reporting that dominate especially TV journalism. In a number of my interviews researching for this report, it was noted that partisan TV channels often engage in hyperbolic and superlative reporting that pushes scandalous stories to both discredit their respective enemy and to drive up their own engagement. It should also be noted that this phenomenon is similar to a frequent criticism of some democracies - especially the USA - in which the Democrats and Republicans are pushed to adopt more extreme policies in order to mobilise their own supporters. The rationale is two-fold: to mobilise your supporters and to demonise the other side. The same can be said for Georgian television media. As I noted above, however, this trajectory harms quality, and, as I will discuss below, stifles debate and puts severe limits on journalism’s ability to hold officials to account.
Naturally, any government with non-democratic tendencies would rather avoid scrutiny and accountability if they can. My conversations with Georgian journalists revealed that the current administration, run by Georgian Dream (GD) and in power for some ten years now, has appeared to have recognised the limitations that polarisation puts on journalism, and seeks to actively fuel polarisation in television media in order to undermine the work and effectiveness of journalists. As Gersamia and Toradze wrote, ‘in Georgia, polarisation has a demonising effect, which is revealed in attitudes towards journalists, their stigmatisation and attempts to discredit them’ (p.18). Salome told me that GD politicians refuse to appear on her programmes in an attempt to frame the TV channel as pro-opposition and to skew their coverage to be one-sided and pro-opposition, even when the channel tries to be as balanced as possible. This strategy creates a deeply dishonest and manipulative black-and-white fallacy in which a TV channel must be either pro- or anti-government, precluding any middle-ground.
This deliberate denial of access to officials fuels polarisation, to the detriment of journalism but to the benefit of opaque governance. Not only does it debase the reputations of those journalists who genuinely try to operate with a modicum of professionalism - an issue worsened by the tug-of-war of polarisation - but it also limits honest journalists’ abilities to hold powerbrokers to account. According to Salome, the government has been ‘somewhat successful’ in their strategy to push more balanced TV stations to the polarised extremes. The consequence is therefore a downward turn in the quality of Georgian journalism, especially on TV. This is most harmful given that some 80% of Georgians still have TV as their main source of information, and that the most popular TV channels are either virulently pro-government Imedi, or virulently pro-opposition Mtavari.
Bad Quality and a Poor Reputation
All of the above is further exacerbated by the desire for clicks and views, resulting in hyperbolic, superlative, and all-round cheap journalism on both sides, hurting quality and giving journalism a bad reputation. Further contributing to this and bad quality of some Georgian journalism is when the on-screen polarisation is brought into the analogue world in the form of physical and verbal violence. According to Gersamia and Toradze, ‘the government targets [critical media] with smear campaigns aiming to undermine their credibility, generating distrust among the general population and depreciation of the journalists’ profession’ (p.20). Their aim, the authors write, is to ‘completely undermine media credibility and reduce support towards the media, to destabilise media institutional viability and journalists’ mental stability, to weaken solidarity and support towards the media, to strengthen self-censorship and fear’ (p.28). The government has therefore successfully turned journalism into a classic strawman, painting the profession as an enemy of the people when, if practised properly, it should be the opposite.
Far-right violence against journalists in Georgia, as did happen on 5th July 2021 during Tbilisi Pride, is an example of the consequences of demonising the media in a polarised environment where societal understanding of the importance of critical journalism is lacking. It would appear that the small but destructive ultra-conservative, nativist, nationalistic wing of Georgian society views journalists as representing the “western” forces of liberal democracy, freedom of expression, and human rights that they so despise. Given that the state of journalism in any given country is almost always on par with the state of that country’s democracy suggests that the two are inherently interlinked. Indeed, proper journalism cannot exist without a societal respect for basic, fundamental freedoms. That militantly authoritarian groups would be most impressionable over government forces trashing journalists’ reputations is hardly surprising, therefore.
Equally, in the aftermath of the violence on 5th July in which dozens of journalists were attacked and one cameraman, Lekso Lashkarava, died, solidarity protests organised by journalists struggled to gain any sort of nationwide momentum, again suggesting that the government’s strategy of gradually disarming journalism of its critical potential is at least partially working. To offer another example, Mariam Nikuradze told me of a story that an internally displaced person had killed himself due to the ‘unlivable’ conditions that he had been living in. According to Nikuradze, in previous years this would have been enough to trigger a decent sized protest, but nothing big happened. ‘People [in general] are not getting as angry as before’, she said, arguing that media coverage may be playing a part in desentising people to when serious and genuine egregious errors of judgement, miscarriages of justice, or abuses of power are uncovered by journalists. Trashing the media’s reputation robs them of this power to affect societal discontentment at politicians’ action or inaction. The lack of media literacy is a similarly pernicious limitation that contributes to this phenomenon.
Journalists themselves are also guilty of the bad reputation which the profession has acquired in the country. Not only do partisan TV journalists engage in what Giorgi called ‘lazy, scandalous journalism’ where they just ‘shout all the time’, but Nino Bakradze noted that some journalists are not even aware themselves of what constitutes good journalism. She said that Georgian media in 2012 had the chance to be realistic, professional and tough, but instead missed the opportunity to truly hold the new government to account by ‘asking serious questions’. Instead, it is a lack of understanding of the basics of journalism among both society and journalists which tarnishes the image of the profession, depriving it of the power that it could have if practised appropriately. Another limitation which was consistently mentioned during my interviews was indeed the question of journalists’ education, and properly educating younger journalists was a frequently-mentioned necessity for the future. As I will discuss later, again, the reputational issues facing journalism act as a limiting factor on this too.
A dearth of quality, governmental deamonising, and poor adherence to professional standards harm journalism’s reputation across the board, and engenders a societal nihilism and cynicism towards the profession, eliminating the effectiveness of one of the most important checks on state power. Furthermore, in a society such as Georgia where media literacy is lacking, due to this highly polarised media environment, many do not understand how a journalist can be “neutral”, again fueling distrust among the population and obscuring the truth that good journalists actually work for their audience and no-one else. While I will discuss this later, it is precisely for this reason that I believe a greater focus must be given to educating the public about journalistic standards, and not only journalists themselves.
Media Literacy and Education
A frequent theme of my discussions with Georgian journalists was the question of media literacy in the country which, by and large, is lacking. Naturally the games which politicians have played and continue to play with the media are made easier if the audience who consumes the media do not possess the tools to evaluate, analyse, and criticise the sources from which they get their information. Although the media monitor Giorgi told me that most Georgians are aware that the main TV stations are owned by businessmen, and some can even name exactly which businessman controls which TV station, a more general awareness of what journalism is and why especially critical journalism is important, is lacking. There still pervades, in the words of Nino Bakradze, a ‘Soviet-style mindset’ where people ‘only want good news’. Indeed, as was the case during the USSR, journalism was not used to hold officials to account but as simply an informatory arm of the state, spreading only positive news stories. It would seem that this conception of journalism as being only an information dissemination institution rather than a public accountability service continues in Georgia. This is the trap which many journalists fall into, leading to such criticism as them not asking ‘serious questions’.
Although the following hypothesis requires further research, it is a hypothesis which I would like to put forward. By and large, so I have been told, Georgians do not appreciate the value or necessarily understand the importance of critical journalism. And so, when Georgians’ news channels are filled with “bad news” - that is to say, critical news - the response is that they want more “good news”, as was the case in the Soviet Union. However, in the 1980s Mikhail Gorbachev, recognising the problems that the country faced as the rest of world continued its latter-day 20th century development, ushered in a policy of glasnost’, or openness, thereby somewhat allowing for criticism of the Soviet state in order to identify where the problems lay so that they can be fixed. As soon as some criticism of the system was permitted, however, the whole system and the country it served collapsed. If it was criticism that killed the USSR, one could conclude that it was the country’s “good news only” policy that had kept it alive.
In the minds of those Georgians who witnessed the collapse of their country at the hands of criticism, however, could it be that they today associate a critical media environment with collapse? With failure? With the gradual destruction of the system that pays their wages, their pensions, sends their kids to school, and so on? Could it be a subconscious, tacit embrace of “ignorance is bliss” that is fuelling negative opinions towards critical media? Could it be that part of journalists’ bad reputation is precisely because they identify and fight against the problems which many Georgians would rather didn’t exist? Could it be that they view that critical media is plotting to collapse Georgia, just as they view that critical media plotted to collapse the USSR? Could it be that they view critical media as another arm of the western information conspiracy that seeks to rob Georgia of its “traditional Georgian values”, thereby leading to Georgia’s collapse? Especially the first question I find particularly intriguing, and it would be worth researching this further not only in Georgia, but across the post-Soviet space.
Whatever the answers to these questions may be, it would appear that Georgian’s appreciation of the value and importance of critical media - that is, identifying and calling out problems that negatively affect them so that they can be fixed - is somewhat skewed. Still viewing journalism as a medium of information dissemination rather than public accountability could explain why this tendency pervades. Another factor that might contribute to this, as I was told by Mariam Nikuradze, is the fact that ‘Georgian media doesn’t really talk to people’ which leads to a communications vacuum between journalism and the people it should serve. Polarisation feeds this goal displacement in which journalism is used instead as a tool for “trashing the enemy” rather than serving the public good. This harms quality and undermines trust in journalism, thereby limiting the impact of genuinely good journalism and complicating journalists’ attempts to gain trust among disaffected Georgians.
Returning to the Soviet question, my interviews revealed that the training of younger journalists is also hampered by schools of thought of a bygone era. According to Nino Bakradze, much journalism teaching in Georgia is still done by ‘very old fashioned and unprofessional teachers’ who still operate in the Soviet-style framework as I outlined above. ‘They have old books, old literature, which do not respond to today’s challenges in journalism. They old teach writing stories and radio, they don’t have the equipment to learn multimedia journalism, mobile journalism, video journalism [...] these lecturers do not know what this kind of journalism is and what it can achieve, what it can cause, and they have no understanding of it’, Bakradze told me. The hope for the future is simply that of raising a next generation of journalists, divorced from the Soviet school of journalism and instead equipped with the skills of properly holding officials and wider society to account. A question of time, sure, but one for which my interviewees expressed cautious optimism. Limiting the number of young people wanting to become journalists, however, are all the aforementioned problems of quality, reputation, violence, polarisation, and so on, potentially hampering efforts to strengthen younger crops of journalistic talent.
Access to Information
As the limitations that journalism faces in Georgia are closely intertwined, there does eventually come a point when one starts to tread on one’s own toes. I have thus far endeavoured to avoid this, but subsequent discussions of access to information, verbal and physical violence, and funding, are all tied up in the problems and their respective manifestations discussed above.
Access to information is another limitation of Georgian journalism. As I have already discussed, government officials will refuse to go on opposition TV stations, and pro-government TV stations will not host opposition politicians. With regards to Salome’s employer, she told me that even under previous administrations politicians would still feature on opposition channels, but nowis the first time she has experienced the current situation in her entire career. She told me that government officials will refuse to appear in front of journalists who are not part of the government vertical asking critical questions, thus avoiding scrutiny and accountability. Exploiting the polarisation card once again, GD will deny the channel access to party officials in order to brand them as “opposition”, when this is just simply not the case. Ducking and dodging critical media appearances not only prevents journalists from getting access to the powerbrokers in government, but also turns the media environment into a strawman of polarisation which makes it easier to discredit, much to the ruling party’s benefit. Although she will explain to her viewers why exactly GD politicians refuse to come on her programme, Salome gave precisely this issue as the greatest limitation to her work as a journalist today.
Another example of the government limiting or frustrating journalists’ access to information concerns things like freedom of information requests (FOIs), doorstep interviews, and parliamentary briefings. Nino Bakradze told me that, as an investigative journalist, much of their work consists of slower, time-consuming work involving sifting through large documents and databases obtained from things like FOIs. Recently, however, the government has obfuscated and delayed processing such requests often citing COVID as an excuse for their slowness, while attempts at doorstep interviews are met with requests to ‘speak to PR’, and so on. Meanwhile, Salome told me that the government may also not host critical news outlets at government briefings, again obscuring public access to information. Naturally, journalism relies on obtaining, processing, distilling, and reproducing the most valuable information for the public good. And yet, if journalists struggle to obtain this information due to government obfuscation and avoidance of scrutiny, this would pose another significant limitation on Georgian journalism, again harming quality and undermining the industry’s reputation. As Gersamia and Toradze wrote in their 2021 report, ‘due to the limited access to information in Georgia, it is impossible to fully inform the audience about desired topics, affecting the formation of public opinion as well as the media’s credibility’ (p.36).
Violent (Verbal or Physical) Threats
I will not discuss this aspect at great length due to the impressive work that Gersamia and Toradze conducted on precisely this topic last year, in 2021. Needless to say, verbal and physical threats levelled at journalists are a significant limitation and indeed a very real threat that indimidates and inhibits journalists from exercising their profession. I have already broached why exactly some sectors of society do level such abuse at journalists, whether it be in order to deliberately polarise the media, discredit journalists, or to simply terrify them into submission. Sometimes, as I hypothesise, it could well be visceral hatred of journalists among particularly the far-right who view a critical media as an arm of some larger western, democratic conspiracy that is seeking to destroy “traditional Georgian values”.
There are however some shades of grey within this which are worth highlighting. Due to the nature of their work as being largely desk-based, investigative journalists do not face such a threat as they are less visible and less well-known than their TV and photojournalist colleagues. Especially during the events of 5th July 2021, many of the more “visible” journalists actively tried to hide their identities and professions, doing away with any conspicuous “press” vests and concealing press-passes. On the other hand, however,
Will Cathcart, an American freelance journalist based in Tbilisi also told me that he, as an obviously foreign journalist, feels himself to be less likely to be the target of violence because he is easily identifiable as a foreign journalist, wearing the “press” vest and working for international outlets. There is therefore a dichotomy at play. While Georgian journalists try to dodge violence by hiding their professions, my discussion with Will Cathcart revealed that foreign journalists may do the opposite for the same reason. A potential conclusion of this is that violent groups may feel an impunity vis-à-vis Georgian journalists, but are wary not to tackle foreign journalists because of the risk of foreign embassies getting involved. As I will mention later, however, this dichotomy does offer a potential, if not partial solution to the problem of violence directed at journalists.
Indeed, the question of to what extent violent groups can get away with verbal and physical threats towards journalists hinges on the ability of the judicial system to hold perpetrators to account. But, as Gersamia and Toradze noted in their 2021 report, ‘‘Procrastination during crime investigations and impunity for the perpetrators [of verbal and physical violence] pose systemic threats that act as motivating factors for further aggression and prevent the formation of a secure media environment’ (p.39). Not only do verbal and physical violence limit journalism in Georgia, but weaknesses within the judicial system also contribute to the impunity with which violent actors target journalists. This, of course, would then lead us into complicated and protracted discussions of the functioning and resilience of the wider Georgian state which is a very different kettle of fish indeed.
The question of how journalism should be funded and how this may impact on the quality and integrity of journalism is not a problem that is unique to Georgia by any stretch of the imagination. The poor quality and reputation of Georgian media, as well as its general adherence to journalistic standards is a consequence of how the industry is funded, therefore placing another limitation on Georgian journalism’s potential.
Once again, the funding of TV channels is the greatest problem as many of them are owned by wealthy businessmen who use them to peddle their own agenda. In addition to this, Giorgi told me that media outlets are not profitable businesses in their own right. This results in partisan journalists exploiting their near-monopoly on airtime at the behest of their political or business overlords, yet again fuelling polarisation, harming quality, and undermining the reputation of all journalism, even those who seek to practice their trade with due diligence and professionalism. One therefore begins to see how the limitations that Georgian journalism faces are not linear and cause-and-effect, but rather a complicated maze of toxic interdependency. For example, in Georgia the state broadcaster 1TV receives its funding not from a BBC-esque TV licence, but directly from the state budget, therefore making it vulnerable to governmental interference if the powers-that-be took a dislike to its coverage. Unsurprisingly, 1TV is a very much pro-government broadcaster. Again, I stress, this problem is not by any means unique to Georgia. Recently in the UK, government attempts to change the way the BBC is funded and the privatisation of Channel 4 has fuelled allegations that the ruling Conservative Party - constantly mired in some kind of controversy and scandal - is attempting to bring rigorous, critical journalism under some form of external control under the strawman of liberating such outlets to be able to compete with the likes of Netflix. The obvious solution to these trends is a wider democratisation of the funding of journalism. How exactly to do this, however, is a very difficult question indeed. One must ensure that funds can be raised without involving some kind of state-controlled oversight which might otherwise make journalism’s funding vulnerable to the same forces which had previously sought to undermine it.
Aside from TV journalism, Nino Bakradze told me that investigative journalism by and large does not suffer from the same financing problems as TV journalism. Foreign organisations have noted that the situation is, in her words, ‘catastrophic’, and therefore provide funding. The limitation here, however, is the extent to which slower, more forensic and level-headed investigative journalism can penetrate a media environment still very much characterised by the hyperbole and exaggeration of TV. Turning to foreign journalism, Cathcart told me that the funding of his work as a freelancer was the greatest limitation that he faced. Up until fairly recently, I was told, outlets used to pay for articles in advance and, while organisations have increasingly only paid for articles after they had been written and published, COVID was the final nail in the coffin. This trend has put significant limitations on freelancers’ ability to manage their expenses and commit to covering stories as they happen, again harming journalism’s potential. While the war in Ukraine has changed this somewhat (we have after all witnessed the incredible contribution that freelance and citizen journalists have made in documenting events and atrocities), the overall trend of such publications responding to budgetary limitations by cutting support for freelancers is extremely detrimental to the profession. Other than calling out those publications who, in Cathcart’s words, let freelancers ‘take all the risk’, only pay them ‘once they have the story’, and then ‘going “thanks see you later”’, any potential solutions to how any form of journalism should be funded circle back to the question of how it can be done democratically without exposing access points vulnerable to exploitation.
Solutions and Recommendations
Given the complexity of the nexus of problems currently limiting the potential of Georgian journalism, it should come as no surprise that there are no easy solutions, no silver bullets, and no “head of the snake” which could be magically removed. As I mentioned above, all the limitations exhibit a toxic interdepency where one weakness is both enabled by and enables other weaknesses. For example, the current government’s desire to discredit critical journalism is aided by a lack of media literacy in the country, while the same absence of media literacy clouds people’s understanding of why critical journalism is so important. Equally, politicians actively complicate journalists’ attempts to gain access to information by invoking the same polarisation card that they, the politicians, have themselves created. It is by all accounts a vicious circle that is difficult to break out of, but not entirely impossible.
Despite this above issue, I feel there is one very clear starting point for turning the tide in journalism’s favour. For all the discussions about what “threats” journalism faces, it is its limitations which impact most significantly on its intended purpose and audience. These are, of course, public information for public benefit. In this sense, I believe that Georgian journalism must first tackle the problem noted by Mariam Nikuradze, namely the communications vacuum that exists between Georgian media and its audience. While the partisan TV channels can be left to battle it out amongst themselves, the more professional, impartial journalists can attempt to build stronger links with the communities they serve by demonstrating that they, the journalists, rather than being the “demons” portrayed by government officials, are actually working for the people. Salome told me a very enlightening story to this effect, in which she was recognised by somebody in a bakery and began talking about journalism. Soon enough, a large crowd had gathered and she explained the importance of critical, impartial journalism for some 30-40 minutes until nobody had any more questions. While not everyone may have taken onboard her message, it is this kind of community-level engagement among good journalists which is essential in fighting back against any government-led, national-level demonisation campaigns. I would therefore strongly echo a point made by Gersamia and Toradze, namely that ‘an important mechanism for increasing public trust in the media is face-to-face communication with the audience and publicly talking about the role and importance of the media (especially critical media)’ (p.49). It is possible that the potential of such campaigns has not yet been fully realised.
Another topic which was occasionally mentioned during my interviews was external funding of journalism by international organsations, such as large NGOs and the EU. There is in this regard no lack of funding for training and courses and so on. One criticism levelled at these projects during my interviews, however, was that the formats tend to be unproductive, they provide little real-world knowledge, only offering training for training’s sake in order to spend the money they had been allocated. According to Nino Bakradze, ‘They have just one day, two day meetings, discuss some issues in their very comfortable hotels with coffee, they never go to the villages and talk to the people, they don’t cover real issues, they don’t work on the stories, they don’t do it.’ One therefore sees once more how the question of communicating with the public has arisen, and a greater focus on supporting those kinds of projects in order to increase awareness of the value of critical journalism would potentially be a most fruitful starting block for trying to combat other limitations within Georgian journalism. This would be especially important in the moral rural regions of Georgia, given their comparative isolation.
Furthermore, given Georgia’s widely-held pro-EU, pro-Western stance, I believe it would not be misplaced to predict that projects funded by related organisations would be held in higher regard among Georgians than if organised by solely Georgian organisations. If anything, active and visible rather than passive and opaque involvement of international organisations may strengthen the reputational quality of such programmes in the eyes of the many Georgians who must be targeted in order to improve critical journalism’s reception in Georgia. In turn, and if successful, one would hope to undercut the most pernicious aspects of other limitations such as polarisation, access to information, and funding. In short, the public must be made aware of the value of critical journalism, and that decent journalists are actually working for them, and not against them. I believe that influential international organisations have a role to play here, which will help lay the foundations for other strategies to combat other limitations.
The crux of such a move would be to create a market for honest, rigorous, and critical journalism among the wider Georgian population. There would hopefully be a broader societal swing away from hyperbolic partisan media towards more centrist, sensible media. Partisan journalists, now with audiences diminished, would realign themselves more to the public’s demand for a higher quality journalism, thus encouraging and indeed forcing journalists who wish to be taken seriously to raise their standards. Naturally, extra training, events, and campaigns and so on provided by the Georgian and international NGO sector could be instrumental in aiding this transition. The point is that the currently partisan or unprofessional Georgian journalists must be given a reason to change, and tilting the wider population’s attention away from cheap media towards rigorous journalism could spur this on. Returning to the difference between how local and international journalists are treated, one wonders whether the international community could step up to develop stronger legal mechanisms to protect Georgian journalists in Georgia. While it is almost certainly rather pie-in-the-sky to suggest that the likes of the US Embassy could swoop in to protect them, increasing knowledge of and ability to obtain membership and access to organisations such as the Overseas Press Club of America could be beneficial in trying to make the risks of attacking journalists greater. Needless to say, public campaigns which aim to rally the population behind good quality journalism would also be instrumental in turning public opinion against the most violent groups who pose the greatest threats to journalists.
There would be other positive consequences of public campaigns to raise the appreciation and understanding of critical media. A market for journalistic accountability now created, younger people who currently shy away from a career in journalism due to its poor reputation, lack of job security, risk of violence and so on, would feel more inclined to enter the profession, especially when the rest of society stands in solidarity with them. Indeed, this phenomenon would be a consequence of journalists initially acting in solidarity with their subjects, as I outlined above. The idea would be to create a matrix of solidarity within and surrounding journalists based on the understanding that journalism at its finest is serving a public good, and not working at the behest of slippery politicians and partisan businessmen. Naturally, however, the continued ownership of TV channels could continue to act as a limiting factor on Georgian journalism’s potential, hence the requirement for a broader democratisation of how both Georgian media and international freelance media is funded that is divorced from political influence or businesspeople’s whims. There could be multiple ways of doing this, such as creating a BBC-style TV licence, founding publicly-owned but commercially-funded TV channels, or protecting state-funded media with ringfenced budgets, or even constitutional amendments. Of course, these latter two suggestions rely on the ability of the state - often itself hardly committed to free and good quality media - actually enacting such changes in the first place.
Finally, one could also consider the creation of some sort of media regulator such as the UK’s Ofcom which would hold all media outlets to certain standards and rules of journalism. While such a body’s existence in a country like the UK is largely positive, where its authority is not abused, Giorgi told me that something resembling Ofcom in Georgia would be universally considered to be a state censor. In any post-Soviet country, a strong aversion to any form of state censorship is understandable, potentially blocking the creation of any kind of media regulator. In any case, what is paramount is a greater focus on closing the communications vacuum between journalists and their subjects in order to better inform the population that, despite what the government and partisan outlets say, good and honest journalists are actually working for you and not against you.
About the author
Patrick Norén, Research Fellow at MCERC. Born and raised in Watford, UK, but of both British and Swedish descent, Patrick Norén is a master's student of Russian and Eurasian Studies at Leiden University in the Netherlands. Patrick has already completed “Georgian language course” in Leiden at the end of 2021 and is now engaged in solidarity journalism activities within the project “Media Voice” at MCERC. Patrick Noren’s research interests include the intersection of contemporary post-Soviet politics and culture, the manipulation of identity for political purposes, and information and disinformation. He is writing his MA thesis on music revivalism and restorative nostalgia in post-Euromaidan Ukrainian popular music, and, to varying degrees, can speak eight languages.