Natia Kapanadze, Director of the Media Legal Defense Center at the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association (GYLA), based in Tbilsi, Georgia, speaks to CIVICUS about recent attacks on independent journalists and civil society’s response.

What can you tell us about recent attacks on journalists and the freedom of expression in Georgia?

The work of journalists in Georgia has become particularly difficult in the run-up to the parliamentary elections, scheduled for October 2012. Since March, freedom of movement for Georgian journalists has been greatly restricted, with authorities denying reporters access to administrative offices and preventing them from covering government meetings and speeches.

Several journalists have also been subjected to heightened intimidation and physical abuse. In early July, video footage was released showing over a dozen activists, including ten journalists, being attacked in the village of Karaleti. The activists came to Karaleti to conduct election campaigning for the opposition coalition Georgia Dream.

Media organisations criticising the authorities have also faced problems in broadcast distribution. In one recent case, satellite dishes imported by broadcasters Studio Maestro LLC were impounded by the government in connection with an alleged vote-buying scheme. Studio Maestro LLC has contended that the distribution of the satellite dishes was simply part of a campaign to increase the scale of its audience. The state has failed to provide any explanation of the case, which has been condemned by civil society as affront to freedom of expression.

A coalition of civil society organisations, including GYLA, recently submitted a package of legislative proposals to parliament. What steps were proposed to safeguard independent media?

GYLA has been involved in the Coalition for Media Advocacy and the campaign “It Affects You Too” [a campaign against restrictive changes to the electoral law]. Recently, these groups have come together to offer alternatives to proposed amendments to the Law of Georgia on Broadcasting. Corresponding legislation prepared by both the Coalition for Media Advocacy and the “It Affects You Too” campaign was submitted to parliament in May. While the Georgian Parliament agreed to incorporate must-carry regulations [which stipulate that local and public stations must be included in cable and satellite platforms] in the revised legislation, the amendments approved by the parliament differ significantly from the legislative package prepared by civil society. Where the legal draft submitted by the “It Affects You Too” campaign called for the inclusion of permanent must-carry principles in the adopted legislation, the must-carry obligations will only apply to the pre-election period, as per the Election Code.

How would you describe the overall operating environment for civil society in Georgia? What are the main challenges faced by civil society?

The state decision-making process in Georgia is extremely centralised, with few opportunities for civil society engagement. When civil society takes a stand on policy issues our input is rarely taken into account. Proposed legislation with strong human rights implications is therefore routinely adopted in haste and without consultation from civil society. For example, while the “It Affects You Too” campaign has been relatively successful in impacting on government policy, during the drafting stages, the government was generally unresponsive and on several occasions refused to share essential resources and documentation, including draft legislation, with civil society.

The situation is further complicated by the government’s selective support of media groups and civil society. The authorities typically support so-called pro-governmental CSOs and pro-governmental media organisations. Such policies greatly undermine the cohesiveness and solidarity of civil society.

How can regional and international civil society groups offer support to independent journalists and civil society in Georgia?

One of the principal areas where national and regional civil society can increase engagement with Georgian organisations is to help facilitate greater access to capacity building initiatives. The opportunity to participate in institution building initiatives for media groups and CSOs would make great strides in filling gaps in capacity as a result of insufficient access to financial and informational resources.

International civil society groups can also support Georgian civil society in our ongoing campaign to help engage government stakeholders. International, regional and national civil society can work to advocate jointly for open and engagement-oriented state policy that adheres to international human rights commitments.

 

Natia Kapanadze is the Director of the Media Legal Defense Center at the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association, based in Tbilsi, the capital of Georgia. GYLA is a non-governmental organisation dedicated to promoting human rights and the rule of law in Georgia. In 2009, GYLA established the Georgian Media Legal Defense Center to provide legal assistance to journalists and to commence strategic litigation advocating for greater respect of freedom of information.

Interview conducted on 6 August 2012

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