Davit Bakradze, the parliamentary chairman, said on February 18, that a cautious approach was needed when discussing financial transparency of broadcasters as too strict regulations might scare off business to invest in the media.
In December the Parliament passed with its first hearing draft law, which bans offshore-registered companies to own shares in the Georgian broadcasters. The draft has yet to be passed with its second and third reading before becoming the law. Opponents say that the draft should also include additional measures to provide full transparency of broadcasters’ finances so that to allow for tracking flow of funds; otherwise, they say, the proposal would fall short of “full transparency” promised by the authorities and in particular by Bakradze himself in October, 2010.
Asked about the issue, Bakradze said that the financial transparency of broadcaster was “a sensitive issue”.
He was speaking in Batumi at the launch of USAID-funded and IREX implemented G-MEDIA program, aimed at improving quality, professionalism, viability and regulatory environment of the Georgian media.
Bakradze said that the draft law already envisaged measures for financial transparency, including by stipulating broadcasters to make public not only a direct owner but also “beneficiary owner”. He also said that banning of offshore-registered firms to own broadcasters “is in itself a step towards financial transparency.”
“We may say that additional steps are required in this direction and I am not against of that. But we should also take into consideration sensitivity of the media business; we should not take such a strict [measures] which may prompt businesses to lose desire to invest in media.”
“If we keep this balance… and if we don’t cross that line, then I am ready to discuss additional measures… The fact that discussions are ongoing for so long indicates that this is a difficult issues on which we are ready for consultations,” Bakradze said.
Speaking about Georgia’s media environment in general, Bakradze said that “in Georgia there is a problem not with media freedom, but the problem is with polarization of media based on their political sympathies.”
“One of the solutions to this problem is to foster development of neutral and balanced media outlets and the Georgian public broadcaster is exactly this kind of media outlet. And another direction is to allow the society to know who is behind particular TV channel,” he said.
“Having a political sympathy in itself is absolutely legitimate,” Bakradze said and he brought an example of television networks in the United States. “But the important is that the society should know who is behind a TV channel, which financial group owns a TV channel… and based on this information [the viewers] can judge how trustworthy a TV channel is.”
“That’s the reason why we make ownership transparent… I can not say that we have not had this mechanism – we had it, these standards were in force, but those were kind of mid-level standards. Today we are moving on the strictest standards… The fact that we are totally banning offshore-registered firms to own TV channels in Georgia is a very strict standard,” Bakradze said.
He said that one of the recommendations by OSCE’s Office of the Representative on Freedom of the Media was not to stipulate new requirements, including ban of ownership by offshore firms, during an ongoing broadcast license period. The recommendation cites that this could “violate the principle of legal certainty.”
But as Bakradze said the authorities would ignore that recommendation “in a positive way” because of the “the society’s interest” to know owners of the channels. If this recommendation was taken into consideration it would mean that the main principle behind the draft, which is to make ownership of major TV companies in Georgia transparent, might be postponed for years, before their current broadcast license expired.