Georgia’s draft media law is rapidly becoming a major embarrassment for the Saakashvili government. Ironically, the new legislation, if adopted, would make life much harder for the Georgian media, which was a key player during the Rose Revolution of November 2003.
Georgia’s new tax code, which parliament is now scrutinizing, would impose an 18% value added tax (VAT) on the press. According to publishers and media experts, this move will automatically lead to a jump in prices for newspapers and magazines, and it will either kill many newspapers or make them dependent on the authorities.
The Ministry of Economic Development, initiator of the new tax rate, says that it has neutralized the negative impacts of an 18% VAT for press by canceling a 12% customs duty on newsprint, which is fully imported in Georgia. Meanwhile, the ministry has rejected a proposal from the Association of Free Press that would implement a 3% fixed income tax for the press and a 5% income tax on journalists’ honoraria. Kakha Bendukidze, Minister of Economic Development, says that newspapers in Georgia, which normally conceal their actual income, must learn to run legal businesses.
Parliamentarian Vasil Maglaperidze, a former newspaper editor, said that the 18% VAT will make newspapers too expensive for most Georgian citizens, because production costs will rise. “I want to hear the reasons behind the new tax code from its authors,” he added.
Georgian broadcasters are also struggling to survive. Debates on the draft law on broadcasting are continuing in the parliament. Independent broadcast companies claim that the bill drafted by Giga Bokeria of the ruling National Movement-Democrats faction will harm their rights and interests. The bill envisions transforming state television into a public channel and handing over the broadcast tower to the new channel. According to parliamentary chair Nino Burjanadze, no changes have been made to the draft law since the first hearing, but she indicated her readiness to hear arguments against the bill.
On September 21, Burjanadze and other legislators discussed the draft with representatives of the independent broadcasting companies. Several legislators, including Burjanadze, shared the same apprehension as the private TV companies and said that their concerns would be taken into account during committee debates. “Naturally, there are arguments [against the bill] and some criticism. However, they are not insurmountable. Of course, there are arguments that should be taken into account to improve the draft law,” said Burjanadze.
But it seems that the ruling party and its parliamentary majority have a different approach. Majority leader Maia Nadiradze noted that both sides wanted to hear the arguments in order to weigh them during further debates. “However, we heard nothing. I want to reassure you that our arguments are stronger,” she stressed.
Meanwhile, private broadcasters think parliament should make a political decision in favor of freedom of speech. They argue that a public television station should not be launched at the expense of private broadcasters.
Giorgi Targamadze, director for public and political programming at Imedi TV, said that the draft law is not about either technical problems or a commercial issue worthy of society’s attention. “It is a political issue . . . The attitude of the new Georgian authorities in general to the draft law and its passage through parliament will reflect the attitude of the authorities to the development of free TV stations,” he said.
Another problem that concerns private broadcasters is the tougher terms for issuing broadcast licenses. Representatives from the NGO sector argue that by passing the new bills and license regulations, the government will have an opportunity to close down “objectionable TV companies.” They think the bill gives the state-funded public television company an advantageous position and violates fair competition in the still limited advertising market. According to legal expert David Usupashvili, all television companies must have equal access to the broadcast tower.
The new bills, if signed into law, hint at an alarming trend in the post-Shevardnadze media environment in Georgia. They also suggest the government’s intent to keep a tight rein on the media in the visible future.
(Alia, September 13; TV-Rustavi-2, Imedi TV, TV Mze, September 21; 24 Hours, Resonance, September 22).