How does press freedom in Georgia compare to Eastern Europe?

Georgia’s media was once again ranked the most free in Eurasia in Freedom House’s 2015 Freedom of the Press report, released on April 28, 2015. On Freedom House’s scale, in which countries receive a score from 0 (the most free) to 100 (the least free), Georgia’s rating of 48 places it firmly in the ‘partly free’ category. Amid an overall worsening picture for press freedom in Eurasia – and worldwide – Georgia showed one of the biggest improvements in the world, with press freedom advancing by 7 points over the previous five years. Reasons for the recent improvements include the 2013 passage of the so-called “must carry” legislation, reduced political influence over broadcast media and increased media competition.

Georgia is currently ranked 93rd in the world in the Freedom House report, on par with Lesotho, Senegal and Tunisia, and above EU member state Greece, which received a score of 51. Since the country’s independence, Georgians have aspired to closer ties with the European Union, so it is important to ask how press freedom in Georgia compares with recent EU member states such as Romania, Hungary and Poland. This blog post tries to answer this question based on the Freedom House data.

Despite the noted improvements, Georgia has always – and continues to – fare worse than most countries in Europe. For instance, Freedom House has classed Poland’s press as free (score 30 or below) every year since 1991, despite a gradual decline since 2003. In contrast, Romania’s media has been considered ‘partly free’ every year since 1994, with greater variation over the 20-year period compared to Poland. Hungary, which was roughly level with Poland between 2004 and 2010, has seen press freedom sharply decline over the past five years, with Freedom House noting it has “suffered from increased state regulation and other interference since 2010.” Still, Freedom House rates all three countries as having a freer press than Georgia.

Hungary provides a good example that even stable democracies can regress, so vigilance is even more necessary in hybrid regimes such as Georgia, which are neither wholly democratic nor wholly authoritarian. Georgia has consistently been considered as such by major democracy indexes, including Freedom House. Indeed, Georgia’s press freedom scores in 2014 and 2015 only bring it back to the level it first reached in 2000, after sharp improvements during the 1990s were followed by a decade of a more restrictive media environment.

Since 2002, Freedom House has looked at three categories when rating press freedom – the legal, political, and economic environments. The scores from each category are summed to produce the final rating. Looking at data from Georgia since this system was first used shows that the biggest factor contributing to the improvement of Georgia’s score has been the political environment in the country. This factor monitors the extent of political control over the content of news media, taking into consideration editorial independence, media diversity and vibrancy, access to information and sources, censorship, and harassment and intimidation of journalists.

The legal environment contributing to press freedom – such as constitutional guarantees on freedom of expression and the independence of the judiciary – has slowly worsened since 2002, with slight improvements between 2008 and 2012.

To what extent do indexes such as Freedom House’s reflect how Georgians themselves perceive their media? Data from CRRC’s Caucasus Barometer survey between 2008 and 2013, which asked respondents to assess their level of trust toward the media, show that distrust in the media has remained relatively stable since 2008, ranging between 16% in 2008 and 12% in 2013, all changes being within the margin of error. However, there has been a dramatic decrease in the share of Georgians who state that they fully trust the media – down from 50% in 2008 to 24% in 2013. At the same time, the share of those answering “neither trust nor distrust” the media has almost doubled during the same period. This suggests that public trust in the media is driven in Georgia by other factors than those considered by Freedom House’s index.

Public opinion data suggests that substantial problems remain in the media environment in Georgia. While Georgia’s Freedom House rating is edging closer to other transition countries that are EU member states, such as Hungary and Romania, it is not solely because the situation in Georgia is improving, but because the situation in much of Europe is deteriorating. Notably, Freedom House’s changing press freedom scores do not match up with population’s reported trust in the media in Georgia, which suggests that it may be a good idea for organizations like Freedom House to adjust its scoring methodology.

What do you think could be at the root of this divergence? Join in the conversation on our Facebook page and take a look at this Caucasus Analytical Digest article on political country rankings in the South Caucasus.

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