Democracies around the world - and the liberal international order - are facing multiple challenges that question the foundations of their values and institutions. Thus, the new geopolitical competition is a struggle for the role, meaning and, ultimately, the future of democracy. These developments were the focus of intense, sometimes somber, and always insightful discussions at the one-day M100 Media Forum. The forum was entitled "Between Ambition and Disarray - The Future of Democracy" and was organized in partnership with the M100 Sanssouci Colloquium on 22 June in the Georgian capital Tbilisi.
Here, the venue reflected the struggle for liberal democracy. A former "place of hope", as the ZEIT once headlined it, Georgia has suffered some setbacks regarding their transition to democracy in recent years and faces massive tensions. Not only has Georgia been facing the security threat of Russia since the Russian invasion in 2008, but the country also has had the space for democratic discourse narrowed under the course of the current government of the "Georgian Dream" party. At the same time, the recent protests in March 2023, as in 2021, testify to the strength and resilience of Georgian civil society and fuel hopes for democratic change. So how can this force be channeled towards positive, forward-looking change?
The M100 Media Forum explored this question in three Strategic Roundtables on democracy, disinformation, geopolitics, the role of civil society and independent media, and foreign media coverage of Georgia.
THE ROLE OF CIVIL SOCIETY AND INDEPENDENT MEDIA
After the one-day conference, opened by the German ambassador to Georgia, Ernst Peter Fischer, with a vast knowledge of German-Georgian relations, 30 international and local representatives from the media and civil society discussed the issue. The Roundtable entitled "Strengthening Democracy: The Role of Civil Society and Independent Media" was moderated by Antonia Marx, and focused on how to strengthen and support democratic flows. The first input was provided by Ana Kakalashvili, advisor and expert at the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights in Tbilisi. At the heart of their discussion were the questions: How can public spaces for social discourse and change be strengthened in an endangered media landscape? How can the concerns of Georgia be made public across Europe, and what role does foreign reporting play? This reflects the real objective of the trip to Tbilisi, which was jointly organized by the M100 Sanssouci Colloquium and the Alfred Herrhausen Gesellschaft. This objective being to change the perspective: not to discuss the East in the West, but to discuss Eastern Europe and the West's view of Eastern Europe and, in this case, Georgia.
In the second two strategic roundtables, inputs were given by Vazha Tavberidze (journalist and political analyst at Radio Free Europe), Anja Wehler-Schöck (Head of International Policy at the Tagesspiegel), Marta Ardashelia (journalist and founder of the independent Georgian online magazine SOVA), and Brigitte Baetz (independent journalist, among other things for Deutschlandfunk radio).
In a final panel discussion, Gigi Giadze, a Senior Fellow of the EPRC in Tbilisi, and the British journalist Robin Forestier-Walker, who reports for the Arab Al-Jazeera channel from Georgia, discussed with Tamar Kintsurashvili, CEO of the Media Development Foundation Ge, and Götz Hamann, Head of Digital Editions of the weekly DIE ZEIT, the future of democracy and asked questions of the audience. On the second day, we also visited two Georgian NGOs working towards creating an informed and effective society and democratic governance in Georgia: The Institute for Development of Freedom of Information (IDFI) and the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies (GFSIS).
Key findings from the lively discussions were:
1) Pluralistic, but polarized
Despite worrying developments regarding media freedom, there is still a diverse and independent media landscape and active civil society in Georgia. This is also the conclusion of the World Press Freedom Index 2020 by Reporters Without Borders about Georgia. It is clear that there's still something to fight for. However, media freedom has deteriorated rapidly in recent years. Oppositional television stations are still in operation, but the division of the media landscape into openly pro-government and critical channels has intensified. The two sides have stopped talking directly to each other and rely only on friendly media, further reinforcing the existing polarization. Certain media companies are governed by politically oriented owners who influence the editorial policy of their broadcasters. There is also a decline in the openness of the Georgian government as public authorities block requests for information. Moreover, the ruling party has not yet submitted a comprehensive plan to implement the EC Recommendation on ensuring free, professional, and pluralistic media. The population itself is angry at the largely one-sided, partisan media coverage. In order to gain popular confidence, it is particularly important for independent media to be accurate, balanced, objective, up-to-date and diverse.
2) New, unconventional sources of finance are necessary for an independent and plurilateral media landscape
One of the most pressing problems for independent media is funding. The media market - for example, advertising and subscriptions - is limited in Georgia, so most media are dependent on donations. The problem: Most donations come from politics and undermine independent reporting and further polarize the media landscape. The problem of independent media financing is not only in Georgia, but also in other countries, including the US. Worldwide we can see that more and more (local) newspaper editors closing down due to lack of funding. This ultimately threatens the diversity of independent reporting, and thus democracy. New sources of finance must be sought for both traditional and independent media. There are already successful financing models that give us hope and examples of how to do it.
3) Digital media as a two-edged opportunity
Independent media have great opportunities through digitalization because everyone can speak up as a transmitter and receiver. Facebook is very important for Georgians, for their civil society, because they can express their views and different opinions are allowed. Unfortunately, there are also many issues on this platform, including propaganda, which users have fallen victim to. Although some media outlets try to combat this disinformation, their resources are limited, and the amount of fake news is too large. We also need to see how AI affects journalism and public opinion. AI enables the spread of disinformation, and even professionals find it increasingly difficult to distinguish what is real and what fiction, so we need to engage in discussion and set new standards and regulations.
The results from the M100 Media Forum in Tbilisi will be discussed further at the international media conference M100 Sanssouci Colloquium in Potsdam on 14 September.
For more information, please contact the head of project Antonia Marx.