Georgia Media Ownership Bill Lacks Other Access Clauses

12 November 2010

A proposal to require the disclosure of media ownership in Georgia does not include wider provisions on access to public records.

The website for the group Civil Georgia reported that the ruling party Nov. 12 tabled a draft law, which, if approved, will limit offshore-registered firms’ ownership in broadcast media outlets in Georgia.

The proposal does not include additional transparency reforms that had been urged by a group of media and legal experts, described earlier by Civil Georgia. It reported:

The group, involving among others Lasha Tugushi, an editor-in-chief of the Georgian daily Rezonansi; media researcher Nino Danelia, as well as legal experts Giorgi Chkheidze and Vakhtang Khmaladze, elaborated the package of proposals, which also addresses such issues like easing access to public information – the problem over which many journalists are increasingly complaining recently.

The proposal also offers measures for reducing timeframe of lengthy practice of court deliberations into the cases involving denial by the state structures access to public information and waiving court fees for such cases. It also addresses broadcasters’ licensing issues, as well as problems related with conflict of interest in the broadcast media and clear-cut regulations for media advertisement. The group said it planned series of meeting with senior lawmakers to lobby for the bill.

Georgian Public Defender, Giorgi Tugushi, to whom the package was presented on October 27, praised the proposal as “perfect”. He said that even his office encounters problems while trying to receive public information from number of the state structures.

Broadcast Law Proposed

Such provisions are not included in the proposed broadcast law, however.

According to the proposed law, a broadcast license holder cannot be a legal entity in which more than 10% of shares are owned directly or indirectly by offshore-registered entity or entities.
Describing the broadcast law, Civil Georgia wrote:

The provision, if approved, will have direct effect on Georgia’s most-watched television station Rustavi 2.

According to the Georgian National Communications Commission (GNCC) , 70% of Rustavi 2 TV shares are owned by Degson Limited, which is registered in British Virgin Islands and no further information is about this firm is available. 30% of shares in Rustavi 2 TV are owned by Georgian Industrial Group (GIG), a conglomerate founded by lawmaker from the ruling party, Davit Bezhuashvili – a brother of Gela Bezhuashvili, chief of the Georgian intelligence service.

If the proposed draft is approved by the Parliament, Rustavi 2 TV will have to re-distribute its ownership shares so that to reduce Degson Limited’s shares to 10%.

Deadline for this procedure is set for June 1, 2011, according to the draft.

Lack of transparency of broadcast media ownership, in particular in respect of two largest broadcasters – Rustavi 2 and Imedi TV – has long been an issue of controversy in Georgia.

After years of reluctance to address the issue, the Georgian authorities announced on October 26 that draft law would be developed to make media ownership “fully transparent.”

Davit Bakradze, the parliamentary speaker, said on October 26, when announcing about the initiative, that financial transparency would also be addressed.

The draft law initiated on November 12, however, addresses only broadcast media ownership issue.

“With the proposed draft we are not aiming at additional amendments related to transparency of finances. But there will be consultations and there may be some novelties [introduced in the draft] as a result of these consultations. At this stage, our goal is to tackle one concrete issue related to transparency of ownership,” MP Chiora Taktakishvili, a deputy chairperson of parliamentary committee for legal affairs, said on November 12.

“Allowing 10% ownership for offshore-registered firms will be a loophole in the law; coupled with absence of financial transparency, [the proposal] will fail to address the problem properly as we still won’t be able to track financial channels, which will be available [for a broadcaster] from the offshore-registered firm,” legal expert, Vakhtang Khmaladze, told Civil.ge.

Khmaladze is a member of a group of media and legal experts, which developed more comprehensive package of media-related draft laws, which was formally submitted to the Parliament also on November 12.

The package of the group addresses not only ownership transparency issue, but also involves issues like easing access to public information – the problem over which many journalists are increasingly complaining recently.

The proposal also offers measures for reducing timeframe of lengthy practice of court deliberations into the cases when journalists are denied access to public information and waiving court fees for such cases. It also addresses broadcasters’ licensing issues, as well as problems related with conflict of interest in the broadcast media and clear-cut regulations for media advertisement.

The group is actively lobbying for its package of proposals meeting with various interest groups, as well as with ruling party and opposition lawmakers. On November 12 the group met with representatives of foreign diplomatic corps in Tbilisi.

Ruling party MP Pavle Kublashvili, who chairs parliamentary committee for legal affairs, said that it was possible to take into consideration those parts of the group’s proposals which deal only with media ownership transparency.

Parliamentary speaker, Davit Bakradze, said that the lawmakers should engage in consultations with media and legal experts before the ruling party-proposed draft law undergoes first reading discussions in the Parliament.

“Before discussing it with the first reading, I request you [referring to senior lawmakers] to meet with experts, local and international organizations to brief them about the planned amendments and to take into consideration recommendations that they may have,” Bakradze said

Open Society Georgia Proposals

The Open Society Georgia Foundation recently published a proposal on media ownership and improving access to government information. On the later point, the foundation wrote:

Ensuring Accessibility to Public Information:
a) Notions of “public information” and “public authorities” were specified. It was determined that administrative agencies, as well as legal person funded by the State or local budget in frames of such funding, fall under the category of public agencies.
b) It was determined that all public agencies are obliged to create a webpage and post all public information envisaged by the law on the website.
c) It was specified that information concerning condition of safety of the environment of an individual’s life and activity shall not be classified as secret; and administrative and private legal agreements of an administrative agency shall not be classified as commercial secret.
d) Publishing a public agency’s budget will be obligatory and its temporary frames will be defined.
e) It was defined that any act that would restrict accessibility to copies of public information or impose fee for release of public information is annulled, except for the sum necessary for making a copy of the information.
f) It was determined that a refusal to release public information can be appealed only in court. At the same time, failure to meet requirements for release of public information constitutes administrative offence and is punishable with fine. 
g) The obligation to pay a state levy for filing a lawsuit in court over refusal to release public information was abolished, and the term for reviewing such complaint in courts of first instance and appeals was fixed at ten days.

Institute Conducts Study

The Institute for Development of Freedom of Information in late September held a presentation of the new project “Monitoring of Governmental Agencies’ Informational Recourses” funded by the Open Society-Georgia” at the Office of the Open Society-Georgia Foundation. The project aims to make a new web-page where public information obtained by the organization will be thematically stored in the Institute’s online database for public access..

Director of the Institute Giorgi Kldiashvili presented  primary results of the project “Monitoring of Governmental Agencies’ Informational Recourses” that was financed by the Open Society Institute and the National Security Archive.   He reported:

Based on the primary results of the monitoring it was determined that the Internet transparency index of monitored official web-pages is not more than 30%. At this stage of the research the lowest rating is earned by the “State Fund for Protection and Assistance of (Statutore) Victims of Human Trafficking” (8.72%), while the highest-rated web site is appeared to be the “Ministry of Environment Protection and Natural Recourses” (31.68%).

FOIA Testing

In order to test the transparency of various public institutions and citizens’ access to public information.

Transparency International (TI) Georgia has reported on a series of field tests in February-May 2010 to determine the transparency of various public institutions. Fifty-two Freedom of Information (FOI) requests were sent to 10 public agencies by four different sets of volunteers.
In 78.8 percent of cases, public agencies provided satisfactory responses, including providing full information or, correctly transferring the request to another institution.

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