Parliament passed with its first reading draft of amendment to electoral code, obligating cable providers to carry TV channels with news programming for 60 days before the elections.
Wording of the draft, passed with the first reading, will make it possible for Maestro TV and Channel 9, co-owned by Georgian Dream leader Bidzina Ivanishvili’s wife, to be carried by all the cable operators throughout the country.
Cable providers in the provinces, however, will not be obligated to do the same in respect Kavkasia TV, which unlike Maestro TV and Channel 9, has no satellite broadcast license and whose broadcast license covers only the capital city.
Ruling party, however, agreed to elaborate such a formulation of a draft before its final approval, that would obligate cable providers in the provinces to also carry Kavkasia TV to their clients during the pre-election period.
The key issue debated during the hearings during a parliamentary session on June 28, as well as during a committee hearing a day earlier, was the end-date of must-carry rules with opposition and group of watchdog organization, advocating for must-carry rules since early May, calling on the authorities to expand timeframe of application of the rule beyond the election day at least before final official results of elections are declared.
But ruling party lawmakers said they were against of imposing this obligation to cable providers beyond the 60-day pre-election period, because the proposed must-carry rules had a very specific purpose: to allow, on the one hand, political parties to reach out wider public to deliver their pre-election message to voters and on the other hand to give voters access to diverse information to make an informed choice on the election day. Ruling party lawmakers also said that the same time period was applying to an obligation of television stations to allocate free airtime to political ads before the election day.
A co-sponsor of the draft, ruling party lawmaker, Nugzar Tsiklauri, even suggested that some opposition parties, referring in particular to Bidzina Ivanishvili-led Georgian Dream opposition coalition, wanted to use this law not for the purpose of increasing public access to information during the pre-election period, but for their “post-election plans” by calling on voters through its television station to stage street protest rallies.
“Georgian Dream leader is a recidivist… who tries to buy the choice of the Georgian people,” MP Tsiklauri said.
Levan Vepkhvadze, a lawmaker from the Christian-Democratic Movement (CDM), a leading party in a small parliamentary minority group, said that switching off pro-opposition television station on the election day might contribute to increasing of political tensions.
“When before the election day these channels will be switched off [by cable operators from their packages]… viewers of these channels will think that it happened because the authorities want to hide something, which will further anger them; so in fact the authorities themselves will contribute to destabilization not the opposition,” said Vepkhvadze, who is Parliament’s vice-speaker.
The ruling party lawmakers said that they would accept a recommendation from watchdog groups and add a provision to the draft of legislative amendment, envisaging imposing sanctions on those cable providers which refuse to follow must-carry rules. Sanction may be a warning and then stripping a cable operator of its license.
A senior ruling party MP Pavle Kublashvili, who has co-sponsored the bill, said that a proposal from the watchdog groups to also include in the draft amendment a principle of ‘must-offer’ would also be accepted. Must-offer rule will obligate TV channels to provide their content to cable providers for carrying to viewers.
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.
According to GNCC’s report on Georgia’s electronic communications market, number of subscribers to cable networks increased from 135,369 in early 2011 to 171,641 by the end of 2011.
There are about 70 cable operators across the country, mainly in larger towns, but three companies take the largest share of the market – Silknet with 43,027 subscribers as of end-2011, followed by Super TV (formerly Ayety TV) in Tbilisi and GNN (operating mainly in Saburtalo district of Tbilisi) with 37,936 and 19,140 subscribers, respectively, according to GNCC report.
U.S. ambassador to Georgia, John Bass, said on June 28, that anything that would contribute to increased access of citizens to broad range of information “is an important, constructive” step.