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New wave of independent media builds online future in Georgia

"We deeply regret the Central Electoral Commission's hasty adoption of a regulation limiting the ability of journalists to work in polling stations," said Reporters Without Borders during the Georgian Elections in October 2012. "Why was it deemed necessary to curb media personnel rights on election day?"

Being a reporter in Georgia is not easy, and neither is running an independent media organisation. Georgia is ranked 105th of 179 countries listed in the latest World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders, while Freedom House score the country as 'Partly Free' with a Press Freedom Score that places it 111th in the world (an improvement on the year before).

According to Nino Robakidze, a lecturer at the Caucasus School of Media, "Georgia's media still faces numerous problems, including a difficult post-Soviet legacy, frequent interventions from the state, poor legislation, unclear ownership, and difficult access to public information and broadcast licenses."

Sourcefabric works extensively in the region (indeed our latest Newscoop release is named Sakartvelo after the Georgian word for the country), and we've also identified several key challenges independent media faces, but also opportunities that a new breed of exciting independents are looking to benefit from.

The revolution may not be televised

One of the greatest restrictions on media independence is a lack of financial sustainability and security. When media organisations rely on government subsidies for handouts, the free media market does not develop as rapidly. If you happen to be an independent who does not want or get government handouts, you are immediately at a disadvantage.

'The fact that independent media should not be taking money from the government, but instead, like all kinds of businesses, should focus on production quality, increasing audience size and generating profits, is widely accepted,' says Nino Robakidze, 'but in Georgia, the media does not develop as a business.'

According to Freedom House, The Georgian National Communications Commission (GNCC), which regulates and licenses the country's broadcast media, has also been accused of not being independent of political influence, as its members are nominated by the president.

"Independence is obviously very constrained for media personnel when the political orientation of media is so closely correlated with the views of their owners. The creation of really independent media with strong safeguards against owner interference in their editorial policies and investigative reporting is one of the leading challenges Georgia faces."

One thing that stands out amongst the people we work with in the country is that they turn their independence into a selling point. Nino Robakidze believes that "direct financial links between the most popular nationwide broadcast media and the political elite makes the existence of elementary editorial independence impossible within these media."

If independence is your unique selling point, that is always a worry for a county's press freedom, but perhaps better than having no selling point. Leveraging independence into strong brands is vital for Georgian media - great looking sites and active social strategies help them take their message further.

The battle for advertising revenue

The audience for independent media sources is small, and could perhaps be stimulated by a more competitive media business industry, but that's not the only issue faced by Georgian newspapers, radios and TV stations.

Nino Robakidze claims many independent media outlets 'cannot operate as businesses because they have problems attracting companies willing to risk government pressure to advertise on their stations. The result is that Georgia has only a semi-free media environment.'

This idea is corroborated by Freedom House whose 2012 report highlighted the state's influence over the broadcast media as a concern.
'Members of the board of the state-run Georgia Public Broadcaster (GPB), which operates television and radio stations, are approved by the president, and its main television channel, 1TV, is widely perceived as biased in favor of the government. The GPB retains a significant advantage over other media due to the state subsidies it receives, although April 2011 amendments to the Law on Broadcasting stripped it of the right to air commercials, with few exceptions.'

Finding new revenue streams, reaching new audiences and building social networks are just some of the strategies Sourcefabric has seen from its partners in the region. When local advertising revenue is tough to obtain, new models can be a viable, but still difficult, option.

Where are my readers?

As we have seen, the circulation and audience of independent media in Georgia is small. Low-cost, open source software can equip media organisations who have limited resources with systems easily as capable as major national newspapers. But they still need readers, listeners and audiences.

'A large number of private print outlets operate in the country and typically enjoy editorial independence, but have very limited circulation,' say Freedom House. 'Magazine readership is on the rise, boosted by a newfound interest in serious, analytical reporting. Radio stations are generally free and independent.

Sourcefabric are seeing interest from Georgian organisations who want to diversify their output. This is seen in the 'longread' format, which lends itself to more in-depth reporting (and made easier by tools like Booktype) or models adopted by media organisations like WADR in Senegal, where radio and web work together to provide a hybrid stream of audio and written content.

Reasons for optimism?

Georgian media is not the most free, but it's certainly not the worst either, and certain leading lights are taking advantage. At the very least, the constitution protects media freedom, and Georgia has some of the most progressive legislation in its region. However, Freedom House has expressed concerns that this legislation can be slowly implemented and politically influenced in enforcement. Reporters Without Borders also temper hope with a warning about polarization.

'Georgia probably has the freest and most diverse media landscape in the region. Media are politically polarized, however, and neutral and objective news is only available from a few sources. Although accentuated by the election, polarization has already been a feature of Georgia's media in ordinary times and affects the print media, which are more diverse, as well as radio and TV.'
The future is here, the future is online

Around 37 percent of Georgians accessed the internet in 2011 (according to Freedom House) and, crucially, the internet is not - at the moment - subject to any government regulation.

Freedom House lay out the digital landscape as one dominated by newer publications, something we here at Sourcefabric also see as an area of great opportunity for young news enterprises.

"While most Tbilisi-based newspapers are not active on the web, regional newspapers have been steadily expanding their online presence, and start-up web publications, such as the independent NetGazeti, are gaining readers."

Sourcefabric recently ran #newsbeta Tbilisi, an event which looked at opportunities arising from web technologies for media organisations. Deployment of digital skills and strategies gives agile, young news organisations a headstart on capitalising on web audiences and advertising.
'The web portals of news agencies, such as Interpressnews.ge, are widely used for fact-based news, while blogs and social-networking sites, such as Facebook, are playing a growing role in spreading news and information,' says Freedom House. 'The adoption of web tools by the traditional media has been hindered by journalists' and editors' general lack of understanding and skills relevant to online media.'

With only 6 full-time staff, organisations like the Newscoop-powered Netgazeti are able to 'punch above their weight' thanks to a sustained emphasis on investigative journalism, a 24-hour publishing cycle and an embrace of social media. They drive an enormous amount of traffic from Facebook, much of international, much of it of interest therefore to advertisers outside of the country.

Reporters Without Borders sum up the problem: 'Independence is obviously very constrained for media personnel when the political orientation of media is so closely correlated with the views of their owners. The creation of really independent media with strong safeguards against owner interference in their editorial policies and investigative reporting is one of the leading challenges Georgia faces.'

The internet looks set to be the environment in which an independent future for Georgian news and journalism is played out. New advertising models, more dynamic content delivery and higher rates of social engagement seem set to give the country's new wave of media organisations a bright future.

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