Responding to concerns voiced by privately-owned TV stations and civil society organizations, Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili announced on January 15 that he has vetoed amendments to the law regulating the Public Broadcaster passed by parliament in the third and final reading on December 22.
Private TV stations and civil society organizations had criticized the proposed changes as creating unfair conditions for the Public Broadcaster, which has only a minuscule audience share, to the detriment of smaller privately owned TV channels.
The amendments were drafted by a group of 13 lawmakers from the ruling Georgian Dream party. As summarized by Civil.ge, they envisage exempting the Public Broadcaster from the existing requirement to announce tenders for products or services; allow it to increase the duration of paid commercials broadcast within the space of 24 hours on working days from 30 to 60 minutes; abolish the requirement that it return unspent funds to the state budget at the end of the year; and reduce the powers of the broadcaster's nine-member oversight board.
Announcing his veto, Margvelashvili focused on just two of the proposed changes. He singled out as "problematic" the provision enabling the Public Broadcaster to air more commercials, pointing out that advertising is the life-blood of smaller private TV channels. Increasing the amount of airtime the Public Broadcaster may devote to paid commercials, Margvelashvili continued, thus risks undermining media diversity, which he described as "an important value for Georgians and Georgian democracy."
Margvelashvili also criticized the exemption of the Public Broadcaster from compliance with the Law On State Procurement as "the removal of regulations intended to ensure that taxpayers' money is spent economically and transparently." He said that while he fully agrees that the latter legislation needs amending in terms of the procurement of intellectual property, and should be brought into line with EU guidelines, the amendment in question fails to do so.
In conclusion, Margvelashvili expressed the hope that parliament would ponder his objections and make a decision that will, on the one hand, preserve media diversity and healthy competition, and on the other, ensure transparency in the spending by the Public Broadcaster of budget funds, InterPressNews reported.
Margvelashvili's arguments echo criticisms by media professionals during the parliament debate on the bill that they grant unfair financial advantages to the Public Broadcaster and consequently pose a threat to the survival of smaller TV channels, and thus, by extension, to media pluralism.
Lasha Tughushi, who is chief editor of the newspaper Rezonansi, described the bill as "bad, it opens the door to corruption, destroys the advertising market, is directed against commercial channels, and cannot in any way help the Public Broadcaster," InterPressNews.ge reported.
The same news portal similarly quoted Ketevan Mtskhiladze, a member of the Public Broadcaster's oversight board, as admitting that given the advertising market is shrinking, granting the Public Broadcaster the right to air more paid advertisements would negatively affect private TV stations.
Public Broadcaster General Director Vasil Maghlaperidze denied this, however. "Don't paint a tragic situation in which we are trying to deprive someone of their livelihood," InterPressNews.ge quoted him as saying. "Media pluralism is a universal gain and essential for every citizen."
The parliamentary opposition, too, categorically rejects the bill. Roman Gotsiridze (United National Movement) protested last month that "we don't need a monster controlled by the state that consumes 50 million [laris, $19.68 million] and has a popularity rating that doesn't exceed 0.3 percent," while his party colleague Giga Bokeria advocated renaming the bill "On State Television."
Even within the ruling Georgian Dream parliament faction the amendments do not enjoy broad support. Meeting on December 20, members of the parliament's Sector Economy and Economic Policy Committee unanimously withheld their formal approval of them. Roman Kakulia, who chairs that committee, branded the bill "unfair." He said he would like to see the Public Broadcaster develop successfully "on the basis of justice and the principles of economic development declared by our team. Healthy competition is the main foundation on which our main economic principles are based."
'Risk Of Double Standards'
Kakulia went on to point out that the Public Broadcaster already enjoys a huge advantage in terms of the sums which it receives in state funding, and that allowing it to increase the amount of advertising it airs "is not a fair decision with regard to other TV channels, especially small ones."
As for the legal provision that the Public Broadcaster may allocate budget funds to support start-ups and innovative television, Kakulia argued that it creates the risk of double standards, and that the government should treat all such commercial projects equally.
Just 63 of the 150 lawmakers endorsed the bill in the final reading; three abstained.
President Margvelashvili met separately on December 18 (between the second and final readings of the bill) with representatives of commercial TV channels and civil society organizations, and with members of the Public Broadcaster's oversight board. He reassured the former group that he would raise their concerns with the board, but gave no indication whether he would veto the bill.
Maghlaperidze for his part said he and other board members tried to explain to the president precisely what their plans are, and how their opponents are distorting the essence of the amendments.
Maghlaperidze further claimed that the provision exempting the broadcaster from the need to announce tenders -- which media expert Zviad Koridze believes will facilitate corrupt practice -- has been misrepresented, and will apply only to creative programming. "We shouldn't set about acquiring programming and films the way you declare a tender for cement or air conditioners," InterPressNews.ge quoted him as saying.
Parliament speaker Irakli Kobakhidze, who crossed swords time and again last year with Margvelashvili during the drafting and adoption of constitutional amendments, said lawmakers will review the amendments in light of Margvelashvili's stated objections. At the same time, he stressed that the amendments were intended to address the problem that the Public Broadcaster's rating is very low. The Public Broadcaster announced in early 2017 an ambitious three-year modernization program intended to address that problem.
Nino Djangirashvili, who is general director of the private TV channel Kavkasia, expressed the hope that lawmakers will avail themselves of the opportunity to amend the bill in light of Margvelashvili's comments which, she pointed out, are no harsher than the criticisms expressed last month by parliament committee chair Kakulia. But senior Georgia Dream lawmaker Gia Volsky is already on record as saying he thinks parliament will ignore the veto. Volsky said Margvelashvili "went beyond professional analysis and took a political position.