dimanche 1 juin 2008

Georgia: regional press at the heart of the urban-rural disparity

Article published in caucaz.com, 22/04/2007 Issue
By Nicolas Landru in Tbilisi, translated by Kathryn GAYLORD-MILES and Anna MANCE

© Nicolas Landru, Mtkvari Valley in Shida Kartli

The Georgian Regional Development and Public Accountability project, initiated in 2004, is an example of what the European Commission has instituted in Georgia. The project consisted of an investigation of regional media followed by the selection of five newspapers from different regions which received financial support and training. The fact that the Commission considered media outlets, and particularly print media, as top-priority sector to develop, indicates the weakness of the country's media infrastructure outside of Tbilisi and the insufficiencies and disparities of Georgia's regions. According to the recommendations by the Georgian NGO Caucasus Institute for Peace, Democracy and Development (CIPDD) *, which is one of the organizations that undertook the project, a survey of regional media has been carried out in Georgia.

Fundamentally, the number of established and active media outlets has considerably dwindled in Georgia's regions since the Soviet era. Many newspapers exist in name only and are published rarely, if ever. When a businessman, politician, or organization launches a publicity campaign, a newspaper can put out one or two editions, only to stop its activity immediately thereafter. Occasionally, a newspaper sees the light of day only to disappear immediately.

Of the five newspapers registered in Zugdidi, the capital of Mingrelia, only one actually functions. Of the three officially recognized papers in Akhaltsikhe, in Samtskhe-Javakheti, the only one that publishes is the one established by the European Commission’s project. For those papers which do publish a weekly or monthly version (dailies are too expensive to produce), the press run is very restrained. At this level, five hundred copies is a considerable number.

Financial difficulties

While a regional newspaper typically requires only six to eight journalists, three or four computers and printing equipment to function, certain regions do not have these resources at their disposition.

Towns such as Kutaisi, Batumi and Gurjaani where solid independent newspapers have developed, have access to sufficient resources and educated professionals. In Kvemo Kartli on the other hand, there are insufficient journalists for independent media’s needs. Marneuli, the regional capital, has none.

Even when the resources exist at the regional level, very few registered newspapers have the minimum budget required to function, approximately 4000 laris [1,750 euros] per year. To publish, a newspaper must be supported by the local government, patron, donor organization. Unfortunately, it rare that a paper is so fortunate. Georgia has no media consortium sufficiently developed to invest in the regional press.

Even if a newspaper has sufficient support to publish and human resources are available in the region, salaries tend to be low and potential journalists often turn to more lucrative opportunities with NGOs or local government.

Distribution difficulties

The lack of suitable infrastructure in the regions poses enormous difficulties for the distribution of regional newspapers. The postal system disintegrated with the Soviet Union and public mail delivery no longer exists. Papers in Tbilisi have created their own distribution services, but not local papers with minimal means. They offer subscription services, and in the best case scenario they deliver their paper themselves to stores in towns or directly to their subscribers.

But as in some towns, there are no points of sale in rural areas and subscribers must pick up the newspaper themselves from the paper's office. In Ninotsminda, in Javakheti, only Gamgeoba, the seat of the local government, receives an irregular supply of newspapers which are only sometimes distributed with priority to friends and relatives of the administration.

The absence of a regular and transport distribution system only reinforces local populations' ignorance of the regional media outlets in existence.

Government-controlled media and independent media

On a political level, local media differs widely from region to region. In general, there are two types of media: those that are independent and must secure their own financial resources, and those that are the product of local government. The chances of a free and independent media outlet's survival depend largely on structure of government-controlled media and the degree of liberty in the region.

In Shida Kartli, in the Gori region, the local government is authoritarian and the administration is especially corrupt. These facts intensify the pressure on potential independent media outlets. Gori has no independent media. Although initially supported by the European Commission, The People's Newspaper (Khalkhis Gazeti) did not succeeded in maintaining the management required, and the Commission ceased its support of the newspaper which has since become inactive again.

In eastern Georgia, the case of Kakheti is interesting. In the administrative capital Telavi, several local government newspapers have been launched but not one independent media outlet. On the other hand, in Gurjaani, a dynamic city on many levels, notably because regional political trends have not taken hold there, there is a concentration of four independent newspapers, and only a single local government newspaper.

Although governments are known to use pressure in order to silence critical voices, certain regions with stronger clan like structures, such as Javakheti or Mingrelia, present other challenges to independent media. In those areas where local media employees of different backgrounds do not work well together, those cities that manage to employ professionals from outside the region stand a better chance of developing an independent press.

Informative material and public demand

It goes without saying that independent media and that run by the government can differ noticeably. As a general rule, newspapers produced by the local government very rarely tackle social issues. More often they publish information on government proposals and projects under way, obituaries, public and religious festival announcements and local folklore and traditions. Often, members of the administration are the principle readers of these newspapers.

The CIPDD research team's findings demonstrated that there is public demand in the regions for media containing more substantial material and reports on problems that concern locals. One newspaper created through the European Commission project in Akhaltsikhe, The Southern Gate (Samkhretis Garibtche), is actually the only free newspaper in the region. It is published in Georgian and Armenian and has circulated between 600 and 2300 copies per week since its creation in 2004. This shows the potential demand for substantial information in Samtskhe-Javakheti.

Another newspaper, The New Gazette (Akhali Gazeti) in Kutaissi, which the European Commission has also supported since 2004, carved out a certain success, thanks in particular to its pertinence. In focusing on information concerning how national reforms are implemented in Kutaissi, as well as their significance for the region of Imereti, The New Gazette succeeded in developing a loyal readership.

Inequalities between regional and national media

Stiff competition from Tbilisi newspapers circulating in the region poses a challenge to regional press, without taking into consideration the growing omnipresence of television and radio. Tbilisi's The Weekly Palette (Kveris Palitra) circulates 80,000 copies per week and possesses a highly effective distribution service. It is thus more widely read than local newspapers even though those could have a different appeal, considering their contextual material and proximity to readers.

Certain newspapers in Tbilisi have correspondents in different regions, but more often, they are based in regional capitals and have to cover a large geographic area. However, in some cases, the Tbilisi journalists travel in these large areas when something important occurs. The lack of national press ties in the regions results in poorly informed coverage ever step of the way.

The predominance of the central press over the regional press has an unfavorable sociopolitical significance in the regions. The regions often find themselves on the outside of debates on society carried in the media, and this sidelining has a direct impact on the engagement of ruling elites and civil society. When the diffusion of pertinent information concerning the regions is made difficult by structural problems in the regional press and by competition from the national media, the imbalance between the center and the regions is reflected and reinforced by the media.

Positive developments

Despite such an unfavorable context, the European Commission's initiative seems to have born fruit. Of five journals which received support, four have become leaders in their respective region. This shows that with financial security, certain regions of the country may see the development of stable and productive independent media. Another project spearheaded by the European Commission, Independent Media for Civil Integration, was launched in early 2007. It addresses two Georgian regions with mostly ethnic minority populations – Kvemo Kartli and its Azeri population and Samtskhe-Javakheti with its Armenian population. The development of independent media in these regions should permit the civil integration of these communities in Georgia.

All the same, the European Commission's projects are not the only examples of positive developments in the regional press. With its status as an autonomous republic, Adjara inherited a strong media infrastructure. Gazeti Batumelebi in Batumi is part of the Commission's project, but is not the only strong media outlet in Adjara. Although quality varies, television, radio and print media are solidly implanted and function relatively well. The "Adjaran model" is frequently discussed because many feel that the region is well equipped to be a real counterweight to Tbilisi.

But there is also the example of Gurianiosi, the weekly paper from Guria, which is published in large volume, is sold throughout the region and which has a regular readership. The journal manages to finance itself through sales, advertisements and co-operation with a variety of international organizations. Although many in Georgia would say that the reason for Gurianiosi's success is the Gurian's well developed spirit of civil mobilization, the journal's success goes to show that problems of size are not insurmountable for the development of regional newspapers.

*Interviews were carried out by members of the CIPDD team: Giorgi Shubitidze, Malkhaz Saldadze et Paata Gurgenidze

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