A trial of 41 high-ranking officers, soldiers and civilians for an alleged mutiny and attempted government overthrow might seem like a prime candidate for saturation television coverage. But so far Georgia's Mukhrovani mutiny trial is generating little media interest. Some local journalists and analysts claim that the lack of coverage speaks volumes about the health of Georgian media.
Following the alleged May 5 mutiny attempt at Mukhrovani base outside of Tbilisi, Georgia's three national television stations - Rustavi-2, Imedi and Georgian Public Broadcasting - gave extensive time to the government's investigation and evidence against several prominent military figures. [For details, see the Eurasia Insight archive.]
The trial itself, however, has been largely ignored. Rustavi-2, the pro-government television station that dominates Georgian media, has never posted coverage of the trial on its website. Media analyst Zviad Koridze states that there has been no television coverage of the trial since reports about its start in September.
In keeping with that trend, there was no noticeable media presence at the most recent hearing, on November 25.
A courtroom ban on TV cameras and recording devices explains the lack of coverage in part. Television overwhelmingly dominates Georgian media, and emphasis tends to be put on at-the-scene news reports. But one magazine publisher points to a different cause.
Shorena Shaverdashvili, the editor-in-chief of the news weekly Liberali, notes that the overall lack of media attention for the Mukhrovani coup trial follows a disturbing trend - a general lack of interest among Georgian media in establishing facts and in investigative journalism. "This is a very unfortunate realty...there are no facts, fact-based reporting anywhere, [or there is] very little of it," Shaverdashvili said. "So it is more event-based news, rather than fact-based news."
Liberali published one large article on the trial; follow-ups have continued on the magazine's blog.
The news director at Imedi maintains that the ban on cameras and recording devices in the courtroom has impacted how the station has reported on the trial. "We do not have [an] opportunity to discuss the trial as it is closed, and we can't see what is happening there," Nana Intskirveli wrote in an email interview.
Intskirveli nonetheless maintains that the television station has been following the trial. She did not respond to questions about how much time the story has been given or when the last report was aired.
Out of the 41 original defendants in the Mukhrovani case, 20 have accepted plea bargains. The remaining 21 defendants are still on trial, including Koba Otanadze, a retired army colonel who the prosecution maintains is one of the key players of the alleged mutiny.
Some critics charge that the three national television channels take their news cues from the government; if a topic is not a priority for President Mikheil Saakashvili's administration, it is not a priority for television coverage, they say.
Eliso Chapidze, an editor of Rezonansi (Resonance), an opposition-friendly newspaper, argued that one reason why coverage has been scant is "journalists in Georgia are right now very pro-governmental."
Imedi's Intskirveli insisted that the station has not been under any pressure either to report or to ignore the story. Saakashvili's former presidential chief of staff, Giorgi Arveladze, now manages Imedi, once a flashy pro-opposition channel run by a partnership between the late oligarch Badri Patarkatsishvili and News Corp.
Saakashvili appointed a news anchor from Imedi as his press speaker earlier this month.
A recent report by anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International on Georgian media and its ownership indicates a strong government influence among Georgia's fourth estate. The report found that the three national channels, which also hold the highest viewer ratings, are "reluctant" to air programs that would lead to debates between the government United National Movement for a Victorious Georgia and the opposition.
The report also noted that there is considerable overlap in all three national channels' news coverage.
Mathias Huter, the analyst who wrote the Transparency International report, said that an October 28 newscast on Imedi and Rustavi-2 underscores the problem. Both stations aired largely the same incorrect story about old data from Transparency International's annual Corruption Perception Index.
"Since the television stations in Georgia play such an important role, it would be really important for the development of ... Georgian democracy to have media outlets [that] are acting as watchdogs and I think this is not really happening yet," commented Huter.
[Editor's Note: Transparency International is a grantee of the New York-based Open Society Institute. EurasiaNet.org operates under OSI's auspices].
The Georgian government, however, maintains that the country's media sector is an exemplar of freedom. During an interview on CNN's Connect the World on October 15, Saakashvili claimed that the country boasts 27 "independent" TV channels and "dozens" of political talk shows.
He described Georgia as one of the most "politicized" countries in Central and Eastern Europe. "We welcome it," Saakashvili said.
Molly Corso is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi.