Georgia’s public broadcaster has been hit by controversy after its director general Giorgi Baratashvili was sacked by the board. Now the government and opposition are accusing one another of trying to control the company, while the board insists it will defend its independence.
The Georgian Public Broadcaster operates three television channels and two radio stations, and was set up in 2005 as an independently functioning successor to the state broadcaster.
Baratashvili, who was only appointed in December, was removed on March 4 after a meeting at which trustees looked into allegations made by the company’s news chief, Khatuna Berdzenishvili, whom he had dismissed.
Berdzenishvili alleged that the director general had interfered in the editorial process to make the news coverage more favourable to the current government.
“The council was obliged to protect the broadcaster from possible political influence and to defend its reputation,” board chairman Levan Gakheladze said, noting that trustees met again on March 7 and confirmed their decision.
Gakheladze insisted that the board was not trying to intervene in hiring policy at the company.
Baratashvili plans to challenge the decision in court.
“I will pursue the legal path, and of course I will fight for justice so as to be reinstated,” he said.
Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream bloc, which won a parliamentary majority in a watershed election last October, is now at loggerheads with the opposition over plans to reshape the Public Broadcaster’s board.
Georgian Dream wants to cut the number of trustees from 15 to nine members, who would be nominated by a commission operating under the speaker of parliament. At the moment, it is the president who selects new members for parliament to approve.
The proposed changes to the Public Broadcaster would transfer yet another area of authority from president to parliament. Although Mikheil Saakashvili remains president, the election defeat suffered by his United National Movement, UNM, and the rise of Ivanishvili, has greatly diminished his ability to control events.
Eliso Chapidze, a Georgian Dream member of parliament, insisted that the reform would be discussed with the UNM.
“There are some questions outstanding, and we will discuss them with the minority,” she said. “We want to end the control that the UNM established over independent media.”
The plan is to allow whichever party is in power to choose three of the Public Broadcaster’s board members, while the remaining members of parliament will pick another three. Georgia’s human rights ombudsman would appoint two more, and the ninth member would be the head of the public broadcaster in the autonomous Ajaria region.
Zviad Koridze, a journalist who helped draft the proposal, says it offers a failsafe mechanism to maintain the broadcaster’s independence.
“This model will not allow the channel to fall into the hands of any one political group,” he explained. “It used to be the Georgian president who controlled the channel, since he himself decided who should be selected as board members.”
Emzar Goguadze is among the trustees who oppose the changes, saying they amount to a plan to disband the current membership because it is “unacceptable for the new government”.
Saakashvili’s allies in parliament agreed that the changes were a ruse that would allow Ivanishvili to take control of the country’s main broadcaster.
Non-government groups who took part in discussions on the reform disagree. According to Lasha Tugushi, the editor of the Rezonansi newspaper, “NGO representatives tried to get these changes made under the last government, but those efforts were fruitless.”
Tinatin Jvania works for the Business Times Georgia magazine.