Three challenges of Georgian media
I really cannot claim I’m a media expert but I have been working in the given sphere for 7 or 8 years already and already have enough experience to have certain opinion about situation and problems in Georgian media. Yesterday, when searching for some articles I accidentally found extracts from my interview with former US Ambassador to Georgia Jon Bass in which he spoke about Georgian media. The article about the Ambassador and his spouse was printed in Hot Chocolate Magazine in February 2012 although the given part was not included in the final article as it was overloaded with different topics and finally it was decided so. But now, after year-and-a-half, when I read his words I realize that he has made very precise, clear and interesting assessments and the topics he has spoken about are still very important. I posted Jon Bass’s quotes on Facebook and received interest from many of my “friends” who have relation with media. Among them was media.ge Editor who asked me to write a blog on the given issue. So, now I’m going to share my humble opinion based on the Ambassador’s viewpoints.
“Media is progressing but there still are serious problems,” Jon Bass told me when after speaking about other topics I asked him a question about Georgian media. After he emphasized three factors that in his opinion were of uttermost importance: first of all he spoke about economic and business factors and stressed that development of media as of business is very important for the formation of relatively independent media environment free from political influences. After he spoke about qualification and professionalism of journalists and finally spoke about the environment in which journalists have work in.
Indeed, during the last decade the given three factors (I do not remember the situation before that very well so I will refrain from commenting) have been mostly decisive for the current type of media we have in Georgia today.
If we start from economic factors, at such a small market there are quite a lot of televisions, newspapers, radios and magazines in Georgia; nothing to say about online publications. Still, very few of them work as businesses. Majority of televisions, whether or not they recognize it officially, depend on funding or political taste of different politically motivated persons, which initially kills their chance of developing as business. Naturally this does not concern the Georgian Public Broadcaster, but so much has been written about the problems and permanent stagnation of the given channel that I think there is no point to speak about it anymore.
In case of press, with the exception of several very “yellow” magazines and grant-oriented publications, quite often there are political motives. In press is also added the problem of ethics as in many publications we directly see xenophobic, homophobic, sexist and other types of discriminating texts (in this the one and only flagman is newspaper Asaval Dasavali, which is the favorite newspaper of our Prime Minister who at first sight is the first protector of the rights of minorities.)
Lately have frequented the news-oriented websites behind which one can see political or religious invliences. Nobody thinks about their development as of media-business. It is also interesting that in social networks those share their content shows quite well who stands behind these publications. In this view especially interesting are the relatively new online portals - Politico.ge and pirveliradio.ge and also info9.ge and iverioni.com.ge.
It means that if you want to make a high professional standard and ethical and possibly objective and balanced (I do not believe in absolute objectivity) media you either have to win an international grant or permanently struggle for survival. Unfortunately majority of Georgian media owners do not even know normally what this struggle for survival means.
They do not know how to turn media into business the way that they sustain professional, qualified and interesting content and become more attractive for more people; meaning to attract the audience used to different so called yellow media. This needs a well-planned and correct marketing which is quite rare here. Add to all this economic problems and as result we receive what I spoke about above.
In this view in the gravest situation are regional media organizations as the market there is still very small and the only possibility to survive is often to act according to somebody’s political interests. Jon Bass spoke about that too and expressed one quite interesting viewpoint that can be given a thought:
“Georgia is a small country with small economy still in process of development. This is a very diverse country with different, specific regional interests. This creates quite many small media markets which is good for journalists but by economic viewpoint complicates the development of advertisement and media as of business. That is why I believe one of the challenges for these small markets is communication with each other which will allow media outlets to at local level again circulate important information and in parallel develop business and for these media outlets to get to larger advertisement market and attract more clients.”
Second topic that the Ambassador spoke about and which I think is very important is the qualification of journalists and their professional standards.
“I have met quite many reporters that appear to not be interested in what they cover. Quite often they as not very good questions or do not ask questions at all; they just put a microphone or audio-recorder in your face and stare at you; I ask: “Aren’t you going to ask a question?” I think trainings and adequate education are necessary for that,” Jon Bass told me when speaking about journalists.
I have given a thought to the given unfortunate reality too. I have seen many times how they go to respondents with microphones and silently await for comments or instead of asking a question they just say one word: “start”. One of my American lecturers called this category of journalists “human stand microphones” and warned us to never become such journalists. I really cannot imagine how can a mature, self-respecting journalist go for a material and be satisfied just with the function of “microphone holder.”
As for the interest to a topic you cover, I believe it is quite a serious problem too. Despite the fact that a journalist cannot be an expert in all the issues, still he must know a lot more than a regular viewer on a topic he is covering and before he goes for a report or an interview he must at least a small research on that given topic. For this it is necessary to be interested in that topic and not to go to cover it just as an obligation. This unfortunately is not a practice in Georgia. That’s why sometimes we are in such comic situations that a journalists coming to Vaclav Havel’s evening of remembrance and asks – “Who is this man and what has he done?”; or at Tbilisi International Film Festival a journalist asks – “What genres of films will be shown?” Even worse, once somebody even asked – “What is Farajanov?” - This was after organizers announced about the introduction of Farajanov’s Prize. Naturally one cannot know everything but when you go for a material you have to Google the topic for at least 10 minutes and receive minimal information about the issue.
As for the environment that media works in and information publicity that the Ambassador spoke about, my colleagues has written a lot about this and they have more experience compared to me. I personally work in cultural sphere more and have not met so many barriers although several times I have also “tasted” what it means when an authority conceals public information. In this view the most “closed” State structures during last few years have been the Defense Ministry, Tbilisi Municipality and the Ministry of Education.
“It is necessary for these people to realize that it is very important to provide information to journalists when it is requested. You have an obligation as a public official, furthermore if you work for government, to be available, to provide information and to communicate with media. These three factors in total condition the media quality and objectivity of information and accordingly everyone must take their share of responsibility and not to just make mutual accusations,” Jon Bass told me at the end of speaking about media. If it was for me I would post this last quote of his in the offices of official ministries in order for all authorities to see it every day and if they do not believe us journalists to at least believe the American diplomats in what they say.
During last several months I have not had contact with public bodies but they say there is certain improvement in view of provision of public information; it’s good if it is so; although if we look at media we will not see any improvement in view of professionalism and ethics. Despite everything the development of social media and online media in general allows me to be optimistic and think and the civil activity online will promote improvement of processes in media along with political processes.