Vienna, October 7 – Arguing that “there is no democracy without independent mass media,” seven major Georgian opposition parties are calling for restoration of national media there “independent of the authorities” as “the first step” to overcoming President Mikhail Saakashvili’s “authoritarian regime” and his “total disregard for public opinion.”
The appeal, which was disseminated yesterday at a press conference and initially only by the New Rights Party’s news group, NRP-News@yahoogroups.com -- a choice that highlighted the problems its authors are concerned about -- complained that “in Georgia all television channels have been turned into a propaganda tool of the authorities.”
(The appeal has now been discussed but not reproduced by several online portals, among them Caucasus Knot at www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/newstext/news/id/1230467.html and Caucasus Times at www.caucasustimes.com/article.asp?id=17063.)
The appeal’s focus on television reflects a fundamental fact of life in post-Soviet states like Georgia: If the government controls this most powerful arm of the electronic media, it can control public opinion even if the print media, which typically costs more and reaches a smaller audience, remains relatively unfettered.
Its signatories include New Rights Party David Gamkrelidze of the New Rights Party, Eka Beselia of the Movement for a United Georgia, Zviad Dziziguri of the Conservative Party, Shalva Natelashvili of the Labor Party, Salome Zurabishvili of the Georgia’s Way Party, and Koba Davitashvili of the People’s Party.
They seven called for the following steps: the restoration of a talk show with daily debates about policy, giving independent journalists regular access to public television, the return of the Imedi television company to its “legitimate” owner, permission for Maestro to air political programs, and the public identification of the owners of all Georgian television stations.
And they urged foreign governments, their Tbilisi embassies and international assistance organizations “to support the diversification of the Georgian mass media in every possible way,” including “the monitoring of new programs” and reporting themselves about “developments between elections.”
In addition to the difficulties the signatories have had in disseminating their appeal, something unheard of in mature democracies and relatively infrequent given the Internet in transitional ones, three things about this appeal make it worthy of close attention by the international media and foreign governments.
First, the authors of the appeal view media freedom as the foundation of all other freedoms rather than only one among many and certainly less important than technically correct election. That poses a challenge to Western governments which have devoted far more attention to the latter than to the former.
Second, like many other Georgian figures today, the authors link the absence of such freedom to what they believe were the mistaken decisions of President Saakashvili about the use of force in the breakaway republic of South Ossetia, a linkage that by itself highlights their belief that the free flow of information could have opened the way to better ones.
And third, by focusing on steps that may appear to many outsiders to be relatively minor, the authors cast a vote of confidence in the Georgian people’s ability to make reasonable decisions on other issues if they have the opportunity to hear all sides of important issues and at the same time in Georgia’s ability to overcome its problems via the free flow of ideas..