The Georgian authorities made a U-turn and agreed to introduce ‘must-carry/must-offer’ rules to increase access to information – the proposal, pushed actively by a campaign group of election watchdog and media organizations, which was initially rejected by the ruling party.
Davit Bakradze, the parliamentary chairman, said on June 22, that the authorities were already working on legislative proposals that would create additional “guarantees to allow television stations to reach out larger audience and to expand area of their coverage.”
“In particular, the initiative envisages carrying of all television channels by all the cable operators during the electoral period; I want to stress that it will apply to all the television stations and it will be a huge step that will help the population to receive more information,” Bakradze told Imedi TV.
The rules, he said, would be in force during the electoral period and a relevant draft of legislative amendments would be tabled in “nearest days”.
In May the campaign group, This Affects You Too, uniting election watchdog and legal advocacy organizations, as well as several media outlets, submitted to the Parliament package of legislative amendments, which, among other issues, also envisages amending law on broadcasting to prevent arbitrary treatment of TV channels by cable networks.
The proposal envisages obligating on the one hand, cable operators to carry TV channels with news programming and on the other hand also obligating TV channels themselves to make their content available to all the cable operators.
The proposal echoes existing situation on the market, wherein some TV stations are denied by some cable networks to be carried to their subscribers, while some TV channels have themselves refused to be carried by one of the cable providers.
Currently Tbilisi-based Maestro TV is not available in packages offered by one of the largest cable networks, Silk TV, as well as by Caucasus TV, which Maestro TV says is a politically-motivated decision on the part of these companies. Channel 9, a television station owned by Georgian Dream opposition coalition leader Bidzina Ivanishvili’s wife, has been denied to be carried by all the cable operators, except of one, Global TV, which is co-owned by Ivanishvili’s brother.
Global TV itself cannot carry several TV channels, including two largest and most watched nationwide broadcasters – Imedi TV and Rustavi 2 TV, after they requested the Global TV to suspend their transmission, citing commercial reasons. Global TV, however, said it was done deliberately to encourage its subscribers to switch to other cable operators and to discourage potential new clients from subscribing with Global TV with an eventual goal to limit number of households with access to Channel 9’s broadcasts, which is also available via satellite and internet.
Lawmakers from the ruling party said the proposal was not acceptable, citing that imposing additional obligations on cable operators and television stations would amount to meddling in private businesses and it was up to companies themselves to agree between each other on the matter based on their commercial interests.
Davit Bakradze, the parliamentary speaker, said on June 22, that although it was “a purely” commercial issue between the private companies, but electoral period was “a special” situation and for that reason it was decided by the authorities “to obligate” companies “to reach an agreement between each other that would eventually benefit voters through receiving more information.” He said that for that reason it was decided to make ‘must carry/must offer’ rules applicable only during “the electoral period.”
Bakradze’s remarks came shortly after Deputy Interior Minister Eka Zguladze, who is also a member of Inter-Agency Task Force for Free and Fair Elections (IATF) at the National Security Council of Georgia, announced that government was in consultations with the Parliament about “additional initiatives” in order “to ease receiving diverse information for voters.”
Zguladze made the announcement while making a statement about seizure of Global TV’s satellite dish antennas from the company’s warehouses. She said that the move was related to ongoing investigation into alleged vote-buying and it had nothing to do with restricting access to information.