Media Freedom in Georgia and Ukraine

February 06, 2024
by
Mariam Gamdlishvili
Saba Elizbarashvili
Katrina Marina
11 min read
Photo Credit: Wellphoto / Shutterstock

Media freedom plays a vital role in upholding democratic principles and ensuring the free flow of information in societies. It allows citizens access to diverse viewpoints, holds those in power accountable, and fosters public discourse. A robust and independent media sector acts as a watchdog, exposing corruption, promoting transparency, and safeguarding human rights. In recent years, Georgia and Ukraine have undergone significant political and social transformations, and strived to strengthen democratic institutions and embrace European values. Media freedom, however, remains a critical challenge in both nations.

This policy paper attempts to assess media freedom in Georgia and Ukraine in light of Russia’s 2022 full-scale invasion of Ukraine and other political challenges. It also aims to provide a roadmap for a media environment that is free and prosperous, nurturing democratic values and supporting sustainable development. Media freedom is a domestic concern and a regional issue, potentially inspiring neighboring countries to strengthen their own democratic processes and ensuring a shared commitment to a prosperous inclusive future.

Policy Issues

Although Georgia and Ukraine share a common past, their media policies differ in terms of scale, context, and, in certain areas, progress. In Georgia, media freedom remains problematic. While the country has made strides toward democratic reforms, challenges persist in ensuring an environment conducive to media pluralism and independence. A critical concern is the concentration of media ownership in the hands of a limited number of powerful entities, resulting in a lack of diversity of opinion and potential biases in reporting. Moreover, instances of editorial interference, self-censorship, and intimidation of journalists have been observed, undermining freedom of expression and contributing to a climate of fear. Additionally, the governing legal framework lacks clarity, creating ambiguity and inadequate protection for journalists, and further impeding the development of a robust and independent media sector.

Similarly, in Ukraine, media freedom faces significant policy challenges despite notable advancements since the 2004 Orange Revolution. Of particular concern is the influence of oligarchs on the media landscape, which often leads to prioritizing their political and economic interests over objective journalism. Media outlets owned by powerful business figures tend to exhibit biases and limited diversity in perspectives. The journalism profession is marred by threats, physical attacks, and harassment, especially when covering sensitive issues such as corruption or conflict, and a lack of transparency and accountability in media ownership exacerbates the situation. Policy interventions are needed to create an environment that promotes independent journalism and facilitates the free flow of information.

Georgia: Policy Shortcomings

According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the environment in Georgia is becoming increasingly hostile to independent and opposition media, and the country saw an unprecedented number of physical assaults on journalists in 2021. RSF emphasized in a recent report that the Georgian media is highly politically polarized: “Manipulation, hate speech, and disinformation are widespread in the media, especially on television, the main source of information. Media owners often control editorial content, as seen with Rustavi 2, a TV channel whose editorial line changed completely after it was handed over to a former owner.”

In 2022, Georgia’s public defender (ombudsman) office registered a number of cases of possible criminal offenses committed against media representatives, including illegal interference in their professional activities, damaging property, assault, threats, and privacy violations. The office reports that criminal offenses directed at journalists or other media representatives are often spurred by the lack of effective measures taken by investigative authorities. This helps maintain an atmosphere of impunity. Besides the offenses committed by political or civic groups, Georgian journalists face a lack of direct communication with ruling party leaders who generally avoid visiting critical television channels, verbally insult journalists, and occasionally prevent them from attending government meetings.

SLAPP (Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation) is another issue that has become problematic in Georgia. The policy is behind 32 defamation lawsuits filed in 2022 by people affiliated with the ruling party against media outlets. Such cases do not generally serve justice but the interests of those in power. They appear aimed at suppressing and exhausting media outlets and journalists by draining their financial and psychological resources. Such practices undermine the standards of freedom of expression and democratic order.

Foreign Agents’ Law

The Georgian parliament in March 2023 debated two controversial bills that would require individuals, civil society organizations, and media outlets receiving at least 20% of their funds from abroad to register as "agents of foreign influence". Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International urged the parliament to reject them, as they would impose burdensome reporting requirements, inspections, and potential criminal liability. The bills were criticized for being incompatible with international human rights standards, curtailing freedom of expression and association. The ruling party eventually withdrew them after clashes between protesters and riot police in the face of widespread censure, including from the EU. Georgian President Salome Zourabishvili, who supported the protests, commended the public's victory, while opposition parties called for clarity on the withdrawal process and the release of detained demonstrators. The bill's opponents argued that existing laws already provided transparency regarding foreign funding.

Public Trust in the Media

One of the biggest obstacles that Georgian media face is a massive lack of public trust. According to the findings of a survey carried out in March 2023 by the Caucasus Research Resource Center Georgia for the National Democratic Institute, a majority of the population (51%) trusts no television channel for accurate information on politics and current events. The distrust is twice as high as it was in 2019. In addition, the vast majority of young people (18–34 years old) were more likely to distrust broadcasters: 73% said that they trusted none.

Ukraine: Policy Concerns

Over the past decade, and particularly since the 2013–14 Revolution of Dignity, Ukraine has been viewed as a “regional leader in journalism and press freedom”. The late 1990s and the early 2000s saw a crackdown on the media, leading to cases of brutality against journalists, the most infamous being the kidnapping and killing of prominent journalist Georgiy Gongadze in 2000. The Orange Revolution brought about a more pluralistic and independent media, giving rise to greater freedom of speech. Despite this upward trajectory, Ukraine remains classified as only “partly free” on Freedom House’s annual study of political rights and civil liberties worldwide. One problem is the concentration of media ownership, which has been deemed undemocratic. A 2015 policy pushing for greater transparency of media ownership has tried to liberalize journalistic activity and comply with international commitments. It has, however, had mixed outcomes. While a democratization of the media has certainly been observed, dominant media channels (particularly television) are still associated with particular businessmen, politicians, and parties.

One of the biggest challenges facing Ukraine since Russia’s 2014 illegal annexation of Crimea and subsequent war in eastern Ukraine has been the presence of Russian-backed channels online and over the airwaves. Western policymakers see this influence as polarizing and dangerous. Russia has conducted years of information warfare in Ukraine, trying to build up support among the Russian-speaking population. In 2012, 29% of Ukrainians, predominantly those living in the east and the south, considered their native language to be Russian. Russia’s long-term project of reconstructing its empire has fomented a myth of “Novorossiya” (“New Russia”) that Russian state media broadcasts to Russian-speaking areas in Ukraine. This allowed the Kremlin to build a narrative on the illegitimacy of Ukraine’s post-2014 “fascist” governments that alienated the Russian-speaking areas and justified Russian President Vladimir Putin’s subsequent actions.

The short-term response of Ukrainian media regulators to Russia’s relentless disinformation warfare during and after the 2014 revolution was to order all cable providers to stop transmitting Russian-controlled television and radio networks. In the medium to long term, under the government elected in October 2014, Ukraine established a Ministry of Culture and Information Policy to oversee efforts in counteracting Russia’s aggressive disinformation campaigns. While this seemed to be an appropriate response to deeply rooted Russian propaganda and disinformation, the ministry soon became highly unpopular. RSF and other NGOs condemned its creation, stating that media in a democratic society “should not be regulated by the government”. The US ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt, said in 2016 that “the formation of the 'Ministry of Truth' that tries to generate alternative stories would be a big mistake for the Ukrainian authorities and the Ukrainian people.” The policy was therefore short-lived, and the new government abolished the ministry in 2019.

Human Rights Watch and RSF have also contested other, more sustained policies. In 2017, President Petro Poroshenko introduced a decree to ban several Russian web companies that conducted information warfare against Ukraine. Platforms such as VKontakte, Odnoklassniki, RBC, and Yandex were consequently no longer allowed to operate. Human Rights Watch and several Kyiv-based watchdogs deemed the ban undemocratic. Some said that “the government had not provided a valid justification for why such a broad ban on online companies was necessary.” Despite strong opposition, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy added more channels to the list of banned media in 2021, unplugging three television networks that were associated with the parliament’s pro-Russian Opposition Platform—For Life (OPFL) and their benefactor, Viktor Medvedchuk, a Putin ally. While Zelenskyy pledged to “never, ever shut down any TV networks” during his election campaign in 2019, this policy shift was seen as necessary amid the significant escalation of tensions with Russia. Despite condemnation from the EU, and even from some of the members of Zelenskyy’s own political party, the policy was implemented.

While battling disinformation and preserving media freedom is a complex balancing act in any circumstances, in wartime it becomes increasingly difficult to adopt policies that satisfy international watchdogs and partners. Reservations about Zelenskyy’s 2021 policy within his own party show the steady transformation of Ukrainian politics, whereby members of parliament are unafraid to express their own opinions and vote accordingly. The move to ban Russian-sponsored networks may be interpreted as undemocratic, yet it placed sanctions on one of Russia’s most notorious propagandists, who had been under US sanctions since 2014. Still, it is difficult to determine if the policy reduced the effects of disinformation and propaganda, especially since nearly 59% of Ukrainians in February 2021 were Facebook users and 51% preferred the internet over television as a news source. Understanding the nuances of disinformation, how it spreads, and effective ways to tackle it is what policymakers should be focusing on in the near future.

Ukraine Invaded

Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022 has resulted in numerous restrictions on the country’s media under martial law and other policies introduced by Zelenskyy. With millions of people fleeing the country in the first few weeks of the fighting, several television stations united to create “United News”, an outlet to inform the population on the situation and counter Russian propaganda. The move was initially praised but soon came under significant criticism. One point of contention was the practice of reporting the news in line with official government rhetoric. The apprehension centers on the lack of contrasting opinions and increasing state control of news coverage. At the same time, some local journalists have complained about the difficulty in getting approval to travel to the eastern and southern regions where important battles are occurring, while foreign correspondents appear to get permission easily.

Although Ukrainian news outlets, especially those online, continue to thrive, the future of Ukraine’s media freedom and journalism undoubtedly depends on a Ukrainian victory and the highly anticipated reconstruction period. Ukraine’s European aspirations will help set the country on a path toward greater freedom of the press and expression. In the meantime, the government must ensure that journalistic ambitions and opportunities are not suppressed, even under martial law.

Recommendations

To promote media pluralism and independence that upholds democratic principles and empowers citizens, Georgia and Ukraine should:

  • Introduce regulations to prevent media ownership concentration and encourage competition. This could involve cross-ownership limitations and transparency requirements. Independent media outlets should receive financial and technical support.

  • Increase capacity building and professionalism by investing in media literacy programs that target citizens of all ages and backgrounds, and enhance critical thinking skills. Journalists should also receive professional training opportunities to ensure that they have the skills to uphold ethical standards, conduct thorough investigations, and produce high-quality work. The establishment of clear ethical guidelines and the enforcement of professional standards will contribute to integrity and professionalism.

  • Recognize the central role of the media in promoting democracy, transparency, and good governance. Strong legal protections for journalists and whistleblowers should be established to safeguard their independence and inculcate a culture of investigative journalism that allows for fearless reporting on sensitive issues such as corruption. Fostering a collaborative relationship among the media, civil society, and government can lead to developing policies and practices that encourage open dialogue, participatory decision-making, and citizen engagement. 

  • Combat and fight disinformation and malign influences. Develop comprehensive strategies to counter disinformation and fake news, including promoting fact-checking initiatives and supporting independent fact-checking organizations.

  • Ensure media pluralism. Encourage diversity by supporting the establishment of alternative and independent media outlets and access to information for marginalized communities.

The future of media freedom in Georgia and Ukraine depends on their efforts to strengthen democratic institutions, combat disinformation, and, for Ukraine, reconstruction. In the meantime, it is critical for both national governments to ensure that media freedom is not suppressed, even during wartime, and to work with the media to secure democratic development.

Mariam Gamdlishvili, Saba Elizbarashvili, and Katrina Marina are 2023 GMF Policy Designers Network (PDN) fellows. This article is part of a series of contributions from PDN fellows. The PDN is made possible by a grant from the German government through the KfW development bank.