The article Media and Polarisation by Lasha Kavtaradze was first published on Media Checker on 6 March 2019.
On February 10, 2019, Georgian emigrants gathered in the city of Liège, Belgium, to meet Mikheil Saakashvili, Georgia’s third president since independence. During the meeting, supporters and opponents of the former president confronted each other verbally and physically. That day, this incident in Liège became the main topic of the three leading television stations in Georgia. If watching the news on Rustavi 2 channel, the viewer likely came to hold a different opinion compared to those who were watching TV Imedi or Public Broadcaster that evening. As Media Checker monitoring has revealed, the audiences of different television stations received fundamentally different messages regarding the same event; broadcasters approached the topic from different angles and intensities.
Seeing different versions of current events is not surprising for regular viewers of Georgian tele-media. After control of TV Imedi was returned to the Patarkatsishvili family, and Rustavi 2 was maintained by its owners affiliated with the United National Movement, together with the governmental change of power, polarised political opinions has become the new norm in Georgian media and television stations themselves have not tried to deny it. Since someone close to Bidzina Ivanishvili was elected as a General Director at Public Broadcaster, the channel has as aligned its views with those of TV Imedi.
The report of media monitoring conducted during the 2018 presidential elections, with the support of EU and UNDP, also indicated the political bias of TV stations and their clear political polarisation. According to the report: “In 2018 this polarisation reached its peak, especially during the 2nd round. In 2016 and 2017, the partisan approach was expressed in the positive coverage of a candidate, while in 2018 the bias was revealed in the negative coverage of unwanted candidates that was accompanied with cases of violation of professional ethics and manipulation with facts. On one side, there was Rustavi 2 involved in the negative coverage of Salome Zurabishvili, the candidate supported by the ruling party; whereas on the other side there were Imedi, Public Broadcaster and Obiektivi, involved in negative coverage of Grigol Vashadze”.
The experts generally refer to the regrouping of media in public space as polarisation. However, for most people the concept, causes and role of media in the process are still unclear.
♦ What does polarisation mean and how is it revealed in Georgian politics?
Political polarisation is a complex matter tied to the context at hand. Firstly, it is depended on the peculiarities of historic, political and social-economic developments of different countries. Thus, it is difficult to discuss the causes and consequences of polarisation in the USA and Georgia in the same manner. We can, however, outline several signs that characterise the polarised political environment regardless of geographic or historical development.
Polarisation may be expressed in various forms, for example, in confrontations between different political groups, deepening ideological gaps among interest groups and impossibility of dialogue between public groups – all of which are necessary for a functioning democracy.
Polarisation can be discussed on the level of both elites and the masses. Deepening political cleavages between political parties or media outlets and their slide towards opposite poles can be considered as elite polarisation. Polarisation of elites is often causing polarisation among massed or a broader society.
Despite its complexity and the existence of various variables, it is clear that polarisation is not limited to controversy only among political groups. It is a broader process and its impact on society and political spectrum far-reaching.
“Polarisation in Georgia is mainly about the individual politicians, as opposed to ideological. Traditionally, Georgian political parties are identified not with their ideologies, but with party leaders “, states the joint report of Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association (GYLA) and Democracy Reporting International (DRI) that discusses the country’s extremely polarised environment and ways to improve it.
Korneli Kakachia, Director of the Georgian Institute of Politics, shares the abovementioned view and points out that if “polarisation in the West is mainly defined by social-economic and political characteristics, we have political polarisation that is mostly related to charismatic leaders and a lack of alternative opinions”.
According to Kakachia, one of the major reasons of this kind of polarisation is distancing the political parties from the interests of public groups.
Explainer of extreme political polarisation
♦ The role of media polarisation in the Georgian context
Over the past few decades, professionals and academics often discussed the role of biased media outlets in regard to political polarisation. One country where polarisation is well studied is USA. According to Matthew Levendusky, a political scientist, biased media outlets that portray the facts one-sidedly and avoid objectivity and balance, can have an impact on the population generally, as well as influence the news agenda of other media-organisations and the political elite. Levendusky also points out that although this influence creates challenges to American political life, the outcomes may not be as broad as the experts initially feared.
According to Marcus Prior, a researcher at Princeton University, studies have not confirmed that biased media outlets necessarily make the American electorate more biased. However, the individuals which are already strongly polarised are more affected by the biased media.
Interrelations between American media and its electorate may not be applicable to describe the Georgian reality, however. “I have often heard that polarisation is not so bad, that it is even the same in America, and there exists Fox News as well. When we compare the USA to Georgia, we should consider that there is huge difference between opportunities, society, media and political environment. There is Fox news there, but also 200 other alternative channels. The problem in Georgia is that here we have no alternative choice,” – notes Korneli Kakachia.
Nino Danelia, a media researcher, speaks about one more difference between the Georgian and American realities. According to her, the US media is mostly supported by businesses and corporations from their own revenues, while in Georgia it often paid by businesses which are strongly affiliated with politicians. Therefore, in Georgia this is especially visible on the TV, where political and economical news are influenced by the political parties.
According to Nino Danelia, to understand how biased television broadcasters are, it is enough to observe the following indicators: 1) topics that the media outlets cover or fail to cover; 2) respondents, i.e. information sources for media; 3) words used by journalists, particularly adjectives that they use in relation to certain political subjects.
By observing these indicators, we can outline two main media actors: Rustavi 2 – deemed to promote the influence of the political party United National Movement, and TV Imedi as biased in favour of the government. Public Broadcaster, funded by the state budget, is the third that influence-wise cannot compete with the aforementioned two televisions, however, has a bigger budget than the other two.
According to journalist Zviad Koridze, when speaking of Georgian reality, polarisation may not be the term that can comprehensively describe the reality. “We do not really have the poles that we have outlined. It is often difficult to understand the reasons why they confront each other and what the main political-economic or values are”. Zviad Koridze points out when discussing the political polarisation- “since we have this kind of situation, political parties use media as a tool to mobilise society. For example, there is a product “Misha” and a product “anti-Misha” (editor -articles in favour and against Mikheil Saakashvili). We can assume that these are poles, but we cannot say that the content within these media is different”.
Sociologist Iago Katchkatchisvhili believes that the problem of Georgian media, in particular television, is that through the years these channels have become tools of political fight among certain powers. According to him, we can name several media outlets that are not conductors of interests of certain political subjects, but that their influence on formation of public opinion is insignificant.
♦ Impact of a polarised media-environment on society
Considering that only a few years ago the three abovementioned media outlets were on the same political pole and occasionally even provided viewers information from identical texts, the current bipolarity may be considered as a positive step forward in terms of media space pluralism.
“We had three national broadcasters for whom the news, very often were written in Ministry of Internal Affairs or the Prosecutor’s Office and were submitted afterwards straight to the editorial staff. Actually, authoritarianism signs were observed here”. Nino Danelia points out and adds, “no matter how radicalised and polarised the media environment is, the situation today is unambiguously better in terms of environment than several years ago”.
Political bias and polarisation of media has certain influence on society and we can speak of particular consequences of these influences.
Research conducted by the Caucasus Research Resource Centers (CRRC), ordered by National Democratic Institute (NDI), shows that, for instance, in December, 2018, 72% of those citizens who stated that the Georgian Dream party shared views aligned with theirs, fully trusted TV Imedi. Furthermore, 59% of those citizens who stated that the National Movement party shared views close to theirs, fully trusted Rustavi 2. Thus, the correlation connection between political preferences and media-outlets confidence indicators is unequivocal.
According to Iago Katchkatchishvili, such media polarisation increases the unhealthy separation of society. According to him, all public events, whether significant or small, are portrayed in a biased manner and are not based on objective discussions.
“No one is interested in arguments, going deep, comparing experience of other countries. When something happens, one media states that the reason of it is the quality of authoritarianism and totalitarianism and the other states that this is within the interests of the National Movement party. So consequent discussions are followed with this kind of non-serious debates” – Katchkatchisvhili remarks.
As assessed by Zviad Koridze, politically biased media, first, increases the risk of society being ill-informed. “For instance, today, the Rustavi 2 audience believes that deacon Mamaladze is blameless. The TV Imedi audience, however, believes that it is not the case. If you gather these people and press them for any details about the situation though, none of them will be able to explain the story. We fail to have factual journalism, we have ‘attitude journalism’ and in this ‘attitude journalism’ trends are not set by journalists, they do not stablish and study facts, they follow some political giving”.
According to Nino Danelia, a polarised media-environment eventually supports radicalisation of political space in Georgia, as the citizens are divided into two camps.
“The result is that citizens are no longer willing keep the elected politicians accountable, no matter which party they belong to. Politics becomes a battlefield, especially during the pre-electoral period, and politicians do not focus on political debates, but rather personal accusations.”, – Danelia points out with Media Checker.
Based on international experience, polarisation may have positive aspects as well. For instance, it can facilitate emerging realistic expectations within the electorate with regard to political subjects. As a result of polarisation, citizens may get a better impression of the positions of political parties on various issues.
In the Georgian context however, it is difficult to even speak of these possible positive aspects of polarisation. As Iago Katkatchishvili pointed out with Media Checker, we should look for the reasons of polarisation within the peculiarities of our political space, in particular – within the fact that political subjects in Georgia are not divided by values and ideology, but rather personal charisma of leaders.
“Instead of a fight between value systems and ideology, the discussion here is moved to the sphere of political intrigues and fight for power. When a citizen sees a fight for power lacking a discussion of values and ideology, it becomes the basis of nihilism, rather than affiliation to any party the electorate”, – Katchkatchishvili states.
One of the winning projects during Communicathon 2018
♦ Depolarisation perspectives and the chance of the Public Broadcaster
Another issue generally raised in the context of the polarised media environment is the role of the Public Broadcaster and its position in current processes. The polarised media-environment may create rather favourable conditions for the Broadcaster to hold an appropriate place within the list of channels. It is quite realistic for a great part of the population, who seek alternatives in the polarised media-environment, to choose the state-funded channel if it offers them what TV Imedi and Rustavi 2 fail to.
According to Nino Danelia, in 2013-2014, the Public Broadcaster started to work as an impartial media channel. However, as Danelia points out, after 2014, the government started the subordination of the media-environment. This was easily observed in the government-controlled media outlets in particular – Maestro and TV Imedi, from where the leading journalists either were fired or were forced to leave. Therefore, changes made to the Public Broadcaster, i.e. new management, can be considered as a part of this process.
“Actually now, the Public Broadcaster should mobilise these scattered resources, gather the audience and tell them, I will provide you with the facts, we can discuss the trends in political and social life together and see what is going on, including talking about TV Imedi and Rustavi 2, as they represent the major energetic bombs”, Zviad Koridze notes.
In reality however, the Public Broadcaster also failed to keep itself away from these poles and, as confirmed with assessments of abovementioned media monitoring reports and experts, they also moved to TV Imedi camp.
When speaking of polarised media-environment, experts point out several solutions for the situation.
According to Zviad Koridze, the root of problem should be sought not in the will of political parties to free the media from control, but rather in the incompetence of journalists: “you can observe, when the political situation changes the media outlets start to have seizures, they seek for the new patron, new attitudes and is it healthy? Media like this is not sustainable. So, the main goal is to achieve media sustainability”.
Koridze believes that the solution is to understand the task of journalists – to say what really needs to be said.
Nino Danelia outlines three factors for depolarisation of the media environment: 1) strengthening those media outlets that do not deviate towards the mentioned political spectrum poles; 2) working with students in media schools; and 3) activation of self-regulation mechanisms and so called “media watch dog” organisations. According to her, the independent media organisations should avoid working with the agenda set by broad media outlets and should work themselves to search for and cover more exclusive topics.
Lasha Kavtaradze is a freelance journalist and an analyst at watchdog organization Mediacheker, based in Tbilisi, Georgia. He holds a master’s degree from Uppsala University (Sweden) and a bachelor’s degree from Ivane Javakhishvili Tbilisi State University (Georgia). Previously he worked as a reporter, TV producer, and a communication manager in various Georgian media and non-governmental organizations.
This article was the winner in a contest for journalists organised by DRI, GYLA and ForSet as part of the project “Strengthening political pluralism in Georgia – Phase III” part of the German governmental programme “Expanding Cooperation with Civil Society in the Eastern Partnership Countries and Russia”, funded by the Federal Foreign Office of Germany.
The content of this article is the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of DRI.