Georgian Media as a Fake News?

In the wake of the ‘war on disinformation’ more and more states focus on promotion of the so-called objective independent and hopefully pro-Western media. This tendency is even stronger in Eastern European countries such as Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and, of course, Ukraine and Georgia. But despite the announced magna mission, usually these sources of information are simply more propagandist rather than neutral and objective; furthermore, they counter the Kremlin ‘disinformation’ and manipulations with their own. Georgia, as a beacon of freedom in the post-Soviet region, is one to the best examples, when countering the Russian threats transformed into constructing conspiracy theories around it. Additionally, Georgian media legitimizes this approach by the necessity to defend the ‘Western values’ and the country from fake news coming from Putin’s regime. Factually, the attempt to counter the Russian fake news with Georgian “pro-Western” fake news led to establishment of highly politicised media environment that tries to hide its partiality and dependence on ideology. Apart from it, Georgian media suffers from various actors who invest in the field with concrete mercantile objectives, the most importantly, to counter the government while prefix ‘pro-Western’ is a ‘bait’ for the state’s strategic partners. By the end of the day, the whole notion of an objective independent and pro-Western Georgian media became the biggest fake news itself.

Objective versus Independent

Representatives of Georgian media are keen to speak about ‘controlled’ Russian broadcasters while praising their own independence from the government. But what they forget to say is that they are not independent from business interests and particularly those actors who heavily invest in this field, especially television, to pursue concrete mercantile goals. For example, Georgian tycoon Bidzina Ivanishvili who established TV 9 to counter Mikhail Saakashvili’s government and once regime has been changed simply closed it. Or, Davit Kezerashvili, former Defence Minister of Georgia during Saakashvili’s regime who fled the country to avoid criminal charges, founded new tv broadcaster Formula as he argues to counter current government, Russian fake news and, of course, bring pro-Western standards/professionalism to local journalism. The same story with Nika Gvaramia, former Minister of Justice and Education, who created channel Mtavari (the Main) to fight against pro-Russian government of Georgian Dream. All these cases are reflections of a sinful practice of founding media institutes for political purposes. They are independent from the government but highly dependent on their source of income – political and business groups – that transforms them into a political tool or even party channels.

We may definitely argue that neither Imedi TV, local private broadcaster by some considered as pro-governmental, nor oppositional channels like Rustavi 2, Pirveli TV, Formula and Mtavari are ‘controlled’; they are independent from outside intervention but they are still dependent due to their primary goals – to defend or to counter. This assumption leads us to controversy between being independent and being objective. Georgian media is ‘uncontrolled’ and ‘independent’ but definitely not objective. Objectivity demands equal representation and neutrality that cannot be achieved because, as it has been said above, the magna mission of the most Georgian broadcasters is, foremostly, to defend or to counter.

Critical versus Oppositional

Another challenge for local media environment is inability or may be even unwillingness to make the difference between being critical and being oppositional. To be critical means to represent both, pros and cons while to be oppositional to show only one side of the coin. We may frequently hear that Georgian media is critical to the government but factually it is mainly oppositional; the same situation is with regard to Imedi TV that is in opposition to the parliamentary opposition, especially, United National Movement and European Georgia. This is pretty logical if we take into consideration the fact that representatives of these movements participated in an unlawful seizure of the channel in November 2007. So far, what we have are channels that due to their ‘oppositional nature’ represent processes in the country in totally different ways – anti-governmental showing a poor, blank and destroyed country while pro-governmental, the slowly growing state. As a result, even local society lives in two Georgia’s and, of course, votes respectively. Furthermore, these broadcasters and their followers are highly intolerant toward those who prefer critical media, allegedly for not being able to choose the ‘right sight’. Probably the best example is a case with the Georgian Public Broadcaster that have been labeled by ‘defenders’ and proponents of the Western values (at the time, Rustavi 2 and others) as pro-Russian and pro-governmental because they have not been ‘critical enough’.

‘War on disinformation’ versus ‘War on critical thinking’

Finally, the Georgian Public Broadcaster’s example raises one more very important topic – controversy between the ‘war on disinformation’ and the ‘war on critical thinking’, or the oppression of the different standpoint. Provoked by ‘successful’ approaches of countering Russian propaganda, especially, in USA and countries like Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, Georgian self-proclaimed liberal elite representatives are obsessed by the idea of eradicating everything and everyone attached, according to their perceptions, to the so-called pro-Russian agenda. The holy war on ‘Russian disinformation’ led to actually oppression of the freedom of speech and critical thinking. Georgian media environment is a space where you simply cannot criticise neither the US nor Europe unless you are ready to be called agent of the Kremlin, enabler of the Putin’s regime and to be ‘excommunicated’ from pro-Western Georgian society. Unfortunately, this ‘war on critical thinking’ is frequently supported by those political actors from the strategic countries who have been appointed to keep an eye on the country’s successful transition toward democracy.

Conclusion

Georgia has a highly politicized and ideologically motivated media atmosphere. Television still remains the main source of information. Apart from a few examples, maybe the First Channel, other broadcasters such as Imedi TV, Rustavi 2, Pirveli TV, Formula and, undoubtedly, Mtavari serve to concrete purposes; in some cases, tv broadcasters have been created as a political tool. Georgian tv broadcasters are mainly ‘uncontrolled’ and ‘independent’ from outside intervention but not objective; additionally, they are oppositional rather than critical. The whole notion of being ‘pro-Western’ is just a ‘bait’ for the abroad audience. Building fake news and manipulating information just to achieve mercantile goals by all means have nothing to do with the real Western values and Western journalistic standards. Lastly, the ‘war on disinformation’ led to the ‘war on critical thinking’ when using the Western critical approach to analyse USA and EU may, by default, lead to grave consequences, particularly, allegations of being pro-Russian, agent of the Kremlin, the fifth column and other labels. 

By and large, rumors about an objective independent pro-Western Georgian media is probably the biggest fake news in the country that outside strategic partners, especially, in USA and Eastern Europe are extremely keen to buy; furthermore, tend to naively trust and build-up serious analysis on it.

The article was originally published by Caucasus Watch.

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Coronavirus in Georgia: Dilemma with the Orthodox Church

Georgia has joined the group of many other states with its first recorded death on April 4. The local government in collaboration with leading virologists tried hard to avoid the precedent and continue comparatively successful fight against coronavirus pandemic. Praised internationally for effective and efficient policy, the leadership of Georgian Dream, headed by PM Giorgi Gakharia introduced nationwide quarantine on March 31, including curfew to stop proliferation of the virus in the state by enforcing the so-called “social distancing” concept.

And while the absolute majority of Georgians support the government’s approach, Georgian Dream found itself in rivalry with the state’s one of the most trusted and strongest institutions – Georgian Orthodox Church. Particularly, the lion’s share of Georgian priests initially refused to follow the new regulations arguing that the flock must attend religious meetings; furthermore, they even refused to change some aspects of the rituals to avoid spread of the virus. Finally, officials are now trying to persuade the church to postpone celebration of one of the most respected and holy religious holidays – Easter. 

Hesitations and inconsistency of the ruling party with regard to Orthodox Georgian Church’s behavior split local society on the so-called liberals, conservatists and neutrals: the first group arguing that this is a grave violation of superiority of the law (secular state), others considering the happening as an assault on Orthodox Christianity (the GOD) and the neutrals being simply too occupied by everyday routine.

Above the Law

Spirituality is an inherent part of Georgian society. Georgia, a historically strongly Orthodox Christian entity, tries to carefully nurture its heritage and is especially sensitive to the issue of religious freedom due to its Soviet past when all denominations were oppressed by communists. The religion played even more important role during and after the collapse of USSR when the Georgian Orthodox Church actually became the only coherent and trustworthy institution in the country. Governments used to come and fall but the church was always there as a “painkiller” for a physically and emotionally exhausted population. This objective reality made it a nation-wide “influencer”, an important political and social actor, a decision-maker. Thus, the state, on the one hand, and the entity, on the other hand, signed in 2002 the so-called – concordat – constitutional agreement recognizing the historic role of the Apostolic Autocephalous Orthodox Church of Georgia in building, strengthening and maintaining statehood and the Georgian nationhood in general. Furthermore, it granted the church and its representatives additional rights and protections that raised the institution above any other religious denomination.

Representatives of the so-called liberals, mainly civil society organizations and some other actors, have been troubled by the concordat arguing that both, the state and the church, are violating the principles of equality and secular state for years. These arguments have been re-iterated and strengthened during the first days of the COVID-19 pandemic when Orthodox priests refused to follow strict regulations set by the Georgian Dream, even threatening to retaliate if the ruling party dares to restrict spiritual rituals. This comes alongside comparatively minor religious denominations immediately showing social responsibility by temporarily halting activities and calling on their flocks to obey the law. The government, being caught between the hammer and the anvil, hesitated whether to react on the disobedience raising additional concerns that the Georgian Orthodox Church is truly above the law. 

The ruling party is still at the crossroad: it should maintain the law while try to avoid rivalry with one of the most trusted institutions right before the elections.

Politics of Faith

It is not a secret that Georgian politicians actively use various religious groups for political purposes. This is especially true during election campaigns when not only Georgian Orthodox Church but also Muslim community and other groups are being dragged into political processes. Political actors are extremely keen to use it to gain additional electoral support by giving a wide range of promises that are usually not implemented later on.

Nevertheless, due to the Georgian Orthodox Church’s vast societal support manages to bargain more benefits from local government. Moreover, its representatives are aware of the existing reality and frequently use this as a quite effective trigger against ruling political elites. On the other hand, Georgian governments were always trying to “conclude” political alliance with the institution to strengthen legitimacy and attract more followers; creating an illusion of people’s power.

Thus, both, the ruling Georgian Dream and the political opposition, behave according to the established tradition. In the wake of the extremely important upcoming parliamentary elections set for October this year, the government is unwilling to fall into confrontation with the church while adversaries are trying to gain the hearts and minds of less privileged religious groups by voicing the concept of equality. Conventionally, even during the coronavirus pandemic faith is being deployed by all interested parties for political and other benefits.

By and large, the Georgian Dream is still struggling to handle the dilemma with the Georgian Orthodox Church in a sophisticated way to avoid allegations of breaking principles of secular state, on the one hand, and, to keep political support of the institution, on the other hand. The Easter holidays are coming and state officials have already expressed their willingness to observe it in accordance with the “social distancing” approach (being at home). This is an additional strong message to the priests that the law must be followed. Thus, the upcoming holidays will be yet another test for the Georgian Dream government and will, probably, finalize the struggle. At the same time, political opponents shall try hard to use this confrontation to unveil political incompetence of the establishment. All in all, parliamentary elections are coming and even the COVID-19 pandemic cannot stop it.

The article was originally published by Caucasus Watch.

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