oDR: Interview

What role can a public broadcaster play in Georgia’s polarised politics?

Exclusive: George Gvimradze, head of news at the country’s public broadcaster, on a divided media, impartiality, and holding politicians to account

Ilya Yablokov
7 December 2021, 12.00am
Journalists attend a rally in memory of cameraman Lesko Lashkarava in downtown Tbilisi, July 2021
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(c) REUTERS / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

Public broadcasting in the countries of the former Eastern Bloc appeared on the ashes of state television and radio companies. For many in the post-1991 period, public broadcasters – unless secretly privatised or put under state control – regularly delivered news and kept citizens updated on politics and culture. In some countries, such as Estonia or Latvia, these broadcasters grew into solid national institutions that enjoy the trust of the majority of citizens. In others, such as Russia, public broadcasters are mediocre, almost artificial media outlets struggling to keep the attention of the small proportion of the country’s overall viewers that have tuned in.

But in Georgia’s highly polarised media and political landscape, public television has an even tougher burden to bear: trying to find balance in an environment that is actively seeking to avoid it. The country’s popular commercial TV channels are politically aligned with the government, led by the Georgian Dream party, and the main opposition party, United National Movement, respectively – and constantly flood their viewers with angry accusations about ‘the other side’. And so the country’s Public Broadcaster, set up in 2005, is meant “to provide accurate and up-to-date information that is free from political and commercial bias and is shared without any hidden agendas”.

Though Mikheil Saakashvili, Georgian president at the time of its founding, wanted the Public Broadcaster to acquire a leading position in the media market, this result is yet to be achieved. The Public Broadcaster is behind all the main channels in terms of ratings, except for entertainment programmes. Independent experts have also criticised the broadcaster for aligning with pro-government positions.

As part of openDemocracy’s new series of interviews with media managers across Europe and the post-Soviet space, we spoke to George Gvimradze, head of the Public Broadcaster’s news department, to understand the Public Broadcaster’s role in this highly charged environment. Gvimradze has worked at the Public Broadcaster since 2014: first as an adviser to the head of the board of trustees and then in his current role since 2015.

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What has been the most challenging task since you took up your position?

There have been two challenges, both of them still remain. The first is the broadcaster’s working culture, which was split between radio, TV and the web. So, the challenge is to integrate them. The last step in this management process is to integrate the radio. Now, all the news is produced via a single centre and is then spread to various departments.

The second relates to the political problems outside of our newsroom – political polarisation and biased media. In this landscape, to be a public broadcaster is very difficult.

It’s very interesting that you have mentioned that at the start of our conversation, I hope we shall be discussing this soon. But a follow-up question: what’s Public Broadcaster’s market share [of viewers]?

It depends on the programme. We have really popular entertainment programmes, like Master Chef, plus many other entertainment programmes. They have 30 and more percent of market share.

Regarding our political programmes, they have very low shares of the market compared to our commercial competitors. The problem is that our society is very polarised, and people look for a media outlet that expresses their position.

This means that when you are offering neutral political analysis or neutral political coverage, it’s not very attractive. Only a small part of society tries to be neutral. These are the circumstances in Georgia: if you’re an active member of society, you have to choose which side you are on. In these circumstances, it’s quite difficult to act impartially because society is searching for hype, not impartiality.

We have improvements with our ratings, very slowly we are increasing our share of the market. But in comparison to us, commercial channels with partial positions have ratings that are three times higher.

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George Gvimradze | Source: George Gvimradze

So your argument is: due to other channels’ partiality, they manage to occupy a large share of the market.

Yes. Also it’s very difficult to make interesting political shows about policy-making. Politicians are more interested in blaming each other than discussing policies.

We tried last year to launch a debating programme. We tried to bring people to discuss education, economics and social care. But politicians did not want to come, denied the existence of issues and blamed other politicians. It’s very difficult to discuss taxation when everyone is interested in discussing elections or electoral fraud. So, we had to switch to discussing the elections. Our political reality makes in-depth debates difficult.

It’s good that you are referring to the media ecology in Georgia. Do you think there are taboos in the Georgian journalism practices? Are there any stories journalists would not report?

I believe there are no taboos in Georgian journalism. There are no stories they won’t cover. None of the media, especially from commercial media, would cover taxation or educational problems. They can cover only the problems they can use to blame someone. It’s not a problem if commercial media is political. Historically, all media were political and biased. This is the history of newspapers and media. The difference between today and Georgia in the 19th and the 20th centuries is that newspapers used to educate people, they were writing about what are right-wing policies and what are left-wing positions. Today they are not explaining the positions of our political parties. There’s one media that is bound with the ruling party and another one with the opposition. So, you can’t find a positive agenda within the coverage of the pro-government media. You can’t find it in the opposition media either. They just talk about how bad their opponents are.

Well, how about concrete stories: the Georgian Orthodox Church, for instance?

Nothing at all. The director of an opposition channel was recently saying nasty words, blaming the head of the church. It was a week ago. There is no taboo! As Dostoevsky said: “If there is no God, then everything is allowed.” This is the situation in Georgian media right now. Everything is allowed.

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14 October 2021: a rally demanding to set free Georgia's ex-president Mikheil Saakashvili | (c) ITAR-TASS News Agency / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

Let’s look at a concrete case. I explored the story around the leaked documents from Georgia’s counterintelligence services (SSS), which showed that politicians and the leadership of the church were under surveillance. All channels made their reports and investigations into specific aspects of this leak. Your channel ran only one story on 13 September, but no serious investigation about the origin of these documents and their authenticity.

You see, you can observe yourself that this story would not be mentioned by commercial media at all after the elections. You can give me any examples these days, especially after the second round of elections when someone mentions those issues. Why? This news is an instrument of political influence. No one knows who initiated this story to bring this info out. And it was hard to understand who brought this info from the SSS.

So, how about the Public Broadcaster investigates it?

We are researching how the documents were leaked from the SSS. We need more time, as we are a public broadcaster, to do something with that. Commercial media has no responsibility, they can talk about anything. I was watching how it was covered by other media that are connected to Georgian political parties. This was not serious coverage, they were ready to discuss this on the second day. If you cover that as news, then it’s OK. But if you’re running an investigation, it can’t be aired on the second day.

It’s been two and a half months since the documents were released. That’s enough time to investigate, isn’t it?

Yes, and I am not sure that we will have any proof even one month after our conversation.

But then this issue will disappear from the public eye and nobody will remember it. And you will never run an investigation.

It was a politically sensitive issue, not a real one. It was just papers and no one proved that it was real or fake. So, it’s a long story to investigate. I believe we won’t know the roots.

Was it covered in the talk shows of the Public Broadcaster?

It was somehow. It wasn’t covered in my talk show. We just covered it briefly through the questions. Because there were some accusations against former prime minister Giorgi Gakharia, that he was involved. And he was my guest and I asked him about it... In my talk show, it was not an issue to be discussed. In the pre-election period, the SSS documents were part of the narrative of polarisation and were used to influence the outcome of the elections. After the elections, all the parties forgot about it. You can check: they stopped talking about it.

But the mission of the Public Broadcaster is not to stop an investigation, but continue it.

We shall try to find something. but I believe it would be difficult. I am not optimistic that the documents are genuine.

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Davit Gareja monastery | (c) Matej Halouska / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

Another story: the scandal over the famous medieval monastery, Davit Gareja, that sits on the border between Georgia and Azerbaijan. Two former members of the Georgian government commission, which is negotiating the border demarcation, were arrested last year on charges of “violating the country’s integrity”. The Public Broadcaster produced a 50-minute film and there’s also very detailed coverage of this news on your website. If you look critically at all the broadcaster’s stories and representatives who commented on the story, I could not stop thinking how biased this coverage is. It was mostly pro-government and pro-Church speakers.

I can’t say that. Who should be there then?

Opposition parties, speakers, ordinary people, lawyers.

Who are the people responsible for this issue?

It’s not about responsibility, it’s about impartiality and the ability to give voice to everyone interested in the story or whom this story affects.

There were lawyers in the documentary. The film was balanced. Unfortunately, people in the opposition party [United National Movement] refuse to talk. They decided to give the right to speak to lawyers.

I believe the ruling party should be blamed for this [issue]. Who should it be? The responsible for that is the government, despite the fact it has blamed others. Despite the fact it might seem that the coverage is one-sided, I can assure you that everyone had a chance to say their word.

But there are no dissenting opinions in the film.

I don’t know if you have watched the documentary.

I have.

In the documentary, lawyers from all sides were represented in the big package. Perhaps we could do it better. If we talk about balance or the right of response, we give this right of response to everyone. In the existing circumstances, the way it was covered was the best way to help [the opposition] express their point of view.

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Georgia's ruling party, Georgian Dream, won local elections in October 2021 | (c) Evaldas Mikoliunas / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

It’s interesting that you say that opposition politicians have the right to appear on the Public Broadcaster, but that they refuse. I looked at the monitoring results of The Georgian Charter of Journalistic Ethics, and the results show that, indeed, most coverage is neutral. But if you look at specific topics, such as the economy and social problems, most of the stories are pro-government. So, thanks to covering news related to the government, you give the Georgian government more space than anyone else.

To be honest, I have stopped discussing this organisation [The Georgian Charter of Journalistic Ethics]. As much as we discuss this, we do not receive data from them. How do they do their research? I am not going to discuss issues of balance, as long as they do not give us their notes, give us proof of how we are biased. We had similar issues in the past. So we have a monitoring team of our own, and we put the results of it on our webpage especially when it comes to elections. Our monitoring is based on the same kind of criteria as the charter. Our monitors always share with them, we have produced software to monitor our content. And we shared our software to make a comparison between our results and their results, but they refuse to share their findings with us.

You know it’s not just about methodology, it’s about counting the seconds. For instance, 30 seconds to the pro-government speaker and then we have to find 30 seconds for the opposition speaker. And then if someone blames someone for 60 seconds, we need to find someone to disagree with that. That's crazy maths we are dealing with here. In this election we are searching for opposition speakers. In August the ruling party started the campaign, and half of the September opposition was weak and passive. We tried to persuade them that if they have any kind of activity, we will come and cover to strike the balance. And it was very hard work for us.

I understand that it’s getting hard to find the balance. It’s obvious for any external viewer. It’s a global trend, in a way. You say that it’s crazy to calculate how much time each speaker spends on air. I looked at the 2018 presidential elections monitoring report from the same organisation, which says that the host gave airtime to pro-government speakers, like Tbilisi Mayor Kakha Kaladze, without engaging critically with what he was saying. The host did not pose critical questions to Tea Tsulukiani, Georgia’s then-minister of justice, or asked questions that rather supported the position of the ruling party. So, it is not really about “who gets how many seconds of airtime”, but about how the host behaves and drives the discussion.

What is the problem? We have different programmes. One of our programmes is called ‘Hard Talk’, another is to show the points of view of various politicians. Not just for the representatives of the government, but to give voice to the opposition, too. Even before that we had programmes specifically created to cover elections and we gave speakers the opportunity to answer the same questions. It’s done to focus their attention on their political programme. Also, we have our ‘Hard Talk’ show, including one with the minister of justice. So, making a judgement based on one programme is unfair.

I have mentioned at least three different programmes aired in the same period.

Three programmes with the same aim? Why doesn’t the [2018 election monitoring] report mention that there are three programmes of different kinds?

The charter’s monitoring discusses election-related shows.

I am talking about elections as well. There were specific programmes made during this period of elections, that we focused on presenting their vision.

We are facing the same problem. If you give pro-government speakers the opportunity to express themselves uncritically, people will see that the channel is not neutral.

When I criticise someone, my aim is to find out the people’s views, how they discuss these views, what solutions they have and how they present. This is my point of view and I believe that I am right. When I talk with an opposition representative or government representative, first of all, I want to understand how this person talks about politics, how this person presents issues.When they criticise something, I have to be critical of this, because I want to understand what really goes on with the issue he/she discusses. To give an opportunity to people who watch me to see the basis of their positions or policy. I am not a ‘Hard Talk’ presenter, everyone whom I interview can prove this. If you have seen my interviews with politicians, you will see they have the comfort to talk about anything.

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Do you believe in watchdog journalism?

I believe in constructive journalism. Being a watchdog is only a part of being a constructive journalist. We have a long-term project with Denmark’s Constructive News Institute. What is it about? At the BBC they call this solutions-oriented journalism. This is the next step after investigations, when you need to go in-depth into the problem. The constructive aspect of it is: you need to find a solution to the problem. If you have relations with politicians, [you must find a way] to force politicians to pay attention to the problem and make them find solutions. In my point of view, this is what democracy needs right now. There’s no democracy at all when society is so polarised.

Why would politicians help you? Why would corporations do that?

I don’t know, it would be difficult, but somehow it works in Denmark. I am not naive and not talking about having it here because it’s a different kind of system. On the one hand, I realise what is outside [of the newsroom], but I believe we need to change it. This should not remain like that. The Public Broadcaster is the first place for this change of polarisation, it’s a stage for people to come together to help society. If we can’t change the situation in the country, why would the broadcaster be needed? Today we somehow manage to be neutral, but one day we might lose our neutrality. We might need to choose which side we are on?

Your position is guaranteed by the legislation. You have funding guaranteed.

What problem is it for politicians to change this law? Seventy-five deputies [in the Georgian parliament] can do it. At any time they can change the funding law for the public broadcaster.

What is more important: there are 150 MPs inside Parliament and I believe 120 of them would agree to shut us down because they don’t understand why we need to spend money on the Public Broadcaster. I can assure you that there are mostly right-wing parties in parliament, and the idea of having a public broadcaster in the country goes against public spending. Because of the EU and our wish to join it, the public broadcaster still exists. In the view of some of our MPs, it should have been shut down many years ago.

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Georgian Public Broadcaster's headquarters, Tbilisi | Source: Zviad Avaliani / Wikipedia

What is the role of the board and management in terms of the channel’s editorial agenda? How can board members who are also politicians influence the channel?

On the one hand, attempts at editorial influence are forbidden. On the other, there’s a balance on the board that prevents contact between the board and the newsroom.

OK, but how about specific politicians on your board? For instance, Bondo Mdzinara, a member of the board and chief editor of the Obieqtivi channel, whose comments on Facebook have a very particular political flavour and, let’s say, some are pretty inflammatory. Do you think members of the board should be so politically biased? Can this influence the channel?

There’s no requirement for the members of the board to be neutral.

If they are radical, members can influence the decisions of the board.

The board has nine members, and they have different views, including radical ones that they can post on Facebook. Their job is to control the budget and see how spending is done. Second, they overlook our programming priorities: what we are going to produce in three years time. They have no instrument to influence our editorial decisions. all decisions on the board are made by majority vote. Also, if they have problems with editorial policy, the only instrument is not to approve our budget. They could also try to make our director resign, but they need six votes, and if they fail they need to wait six more months.

Another question regarding management: the former director general of the Public Broadcaster, Vasil Maglaperidze, resigned in mid-August 2020. That same month he joined the ruling Georgian Dream party as deputy head. Don’t you find this problematic?

No. Maglaperidze is a free man, he can do what he wants. If he moves to a different political party, would that be a problem?

Well, ideally, he should not join any political party.

When he became director in 2017, he never tried to hide the fact that he had relations with Bidzina Ivanishvili. Everyone knew that he had a relationship with him, that he had a good friendship with him. Are we talking about friendships? [This is not important. What is important] I suppose, is what the public broadcaster is doing.

But the director is the one who manages you?

And? What is the result of his management?

Now, according to various sources, he is going to run a new programme.

It’s not a rumour. He will have his show: it’s a documentary about Georgian history. It’s very far from any political issues.

History is not that far from politics. You can see it in Putin’s Russia or in various European countries. History can be used as a political instrument.

I know what he is doing, so I can assure you, it’s very far from the current political scene in Georgia.

But this is precisely why experts say that the Public Broadcaster is biased. Pro-government speakers have time on-air where they can speak about their political stances. This creates the idea that the Public Broadcaster is not neutral and leans towards the government.

What’s important is what the Public Broadcaster is doing, not what different people think of it, including the role of Vasil Maglaperidze. He is making interesting documentaries about Georgian history. That’s his background. He started this project when he was a director. When he joined Georgian Dream, he stopped [working on the project] because of these rumours. When he returned from his work for the party, he said that he would like to finalise his programme. I have watched the first episode, it will be aired next Friday. It’s about history 1,400 years ago. We can say that Vasil has some political views, yes, he has. I also have political views and priorities. I go to vote and support some political parties. I am not neutral at all. Everyone has political perceptions. However, it’s important that we do our job neutrally, and I am sure that my show is neutral.

Do you think if Vasil Maglaperidze would have rejoined the Public Broadcaster with a political show, he would have been allowed to run it? Would you have accepted his pitch?

If he had wanted to run a political show, he would have made it in 2017. He has no ideas to make a political TV show on this channel now.

What if he would have offered it to you now?

I never thought about it. He had talked about [running a political show] previously. His position was always that he had no interest in running that show.

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Mourners applaud during a funeral of journalist Lekso Lashkarava. The cameraman was found dead at his home several days after he was beaten during attacks on LGBT+ activists in Tbilisi | (c) REUTERS / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

The last thing I’d like to touch upon is the nasty pictures of Georgian journalists being beaten by the far Right in Tbilisi on 5 July. It was horrible to watch, but, it seems, Georgian journalists became united for a moment. Would you like to share your views on what happened to journalists that day and later?

On the one hand, journalists became united. But after one week unfortunately many journalists stopped talking about my cameraman [Ilya Tvaliashvili, who was injured in the rallies]. Because my cameraman did not go and shout outside Parliament that the Georgian prime minister must resign. He was just doing his job. His colleagues forgot him because he did not demand that politicians do something. This is all about our polarisation: if you're not with us, you’re against us. He is not against anyone: he is just a victim of violence. We still try to protect his rights with regard to the ongoing investigation, but we are not going to the parliament and shouting. This is the difference between us and the media that go to the streets.

What would have been the ideal reaction of the journalist community on the day when 53 journalists were beaten?

Just to request a free and impartial criminal investigation. If an investigation would say that some politicians should be blamed for the violence, these politicians should resign. I don’t believe other journalists are acting impartially and ethically. You don’t make political demands at the initial stage of the investigation.

Why isn’t that ethical?

It’s a political demand, which is not ethical.

So, a demand for the prime minister to resign is not ethical?

Any demands outside of the investigation are unethical. Demanding someone resign without showing any proof is unethical. It’s not a journalist’s work to demand that someone resigns. Anyone could do that, but journalists should just cover the news.

Are you running any investigation into what happened on 5 July?

Not so much. We have not.

Why?

I don’t believe that’s something to investigate for journalists – someone beating someone else. This must be investigated by Georgian law enforcement. What is there to investigate?

The safety of journalists is an issue of national security and democracy.

It is, but I don’t see any problems with law enforcement’s investigation.

Why do you think there’s nothing for further journalistic investigation? Are you satisfied with the police investigation?

We can’t see what journalists can investigate with regard to that matter. If law enforcement's investigation was not done properly, we would identify what we can do. I can’t see right now that something is not being done right, maybe it’s not efficient, maybe it’s taking too long. However, many investigations are run at a similar speed, they are slow. So, the perpetrators are arrested, and I have no big questions about the ongoing investigation.

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