By Eric Freedman
A short article on the website of Georgia Today, an English-language newspaper, was headlined “Journalism and Youth: The South Caucasus Media Forum” and read like an innocuous advance story about an upcoming conference “where lectures of prominent figures of journalism and political science for young journalists and observers will be featured.” It said the main topics of the Sept. 4-7 forum would include regional political culture and media trends.
I saw the story two days before leaving the U.S. to spend the fall teaching and doing research in the Republic of Georgia. Sounded useful to give me a better sense of the mediascape in the South Caucasus.
After I arrived in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, I searched unsuccessfully online for the time, place, contact information and agenda. I’d noticed that all four featured speakers are Russian, and when I asked a faculty colleague at Caucasus University about the conference, she knew no details but said its funding came from a foundation controlled by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Busy with other things, such as preparing lectures and finding an apartment, I gave up the idea of attending. Then after the event began, I saw a Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty story describing it as “Kremlin-sponsored” and reporting that protesters outside the conference site had chanted “Russia is an occupier!” and “Russia kills!” The article noted, “Police stood by at the site.”
Forum organizers denied that the conference concerned Georgia-Russia relations. They insisted it included only discussions and about media and political developments, “with Russian journalists taking part as lead experts,” Georgia Today reported.
The Ministry of Internal Affairs refused to allow three of the main speakers from Russia to enter Georgia, saying they had broken the country’s Law on Occupied Territories and couldn’t cross the border.
This spat comes amid backdrop of centuries of deep antagonism, a subject I’ll write more about in future blog posts. The bitterness is tangible when you talk to Georgians who remember past occupations by tsarist Russian and later the Soviet Union.
It’s highlighted by the brief war 10 years ago in which Russian troops invaded Georgia. Moscow now controls an estimated 20 percent of territory that Georgia claims sovereignty over.
As Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty explained: “Relations between Moscow and Tbilisi have remained tense in the years since the two countries fought a five-day war in August 2008 over Georgia’s separatist region of South Ossetia. South Ossetia and Abkhazia shed the control of the central government in Tbilisi in separatist wars in the early 1990s. Russia stepped up its military presence in South Ossetia and Abkhazia after recognizing them as independent states following the war.”
The media forum became a domestic political football as well.
One of the minority parties in Parliament, European Georgia, called for legislation to restrict Russian propaganda. The English-language news site, Messenger Online, quoted one of the party’s parliamentary deputies, Sergi Kapanadze, saying, “In Tbilisi, there is underway a so-called media forum, where Russian propagandists are meeting their Georgian colleagues… Russia finances all this, and this is the mockery of our country. It is sad that this is happening in the 21st century, 10 years after the August war, when Russia occupied our territories.”
The ruling party, Georgian Dream, took issue with the minority party’s proposal and called it impossible to implement due to modern technologies, Georgia Today reported. It quoted the vice-speaker of Parliament, Gia Volsky, saying that Russia’s funding of forums and journalists can’t influence what Georgian society thinks. According to the article, Volsky said, “It is nothing new that Russian journalists and politicians do not think as we do… We know their position without their coming to Tbilisi, and their conversations cannot change the attitude of the government of Georgia, foreign policy or public awareness that the Russian aggression and occupation took place in Georgia.”
There is much more.
Tuesday, I did attend a conference in Tbilisi called “The World in 2018 Upside Down” sponsored by Arizona State University’s McCain (as in the late senator John McCain) Institute for International Leadership and Georgia’s Economic Policy Research Institute. The presenters included the prime minister, the British ambassador, the speaker of Parliament and a bevy of high-level officials, civil society group leaders and think tank experts.
At the conference’s off-the-record, by-invitation-only roundtable about Georgia’s media landscape, one common thread was Russia’s growing influence over media outlets in the country. That influence includes significant funding for “independent” news organization and news websites battered by declining revenue from advertising.
The same media-related theme recurred during the public session.
For example, Prime Minister Mamuka Bakhtadze talked about fake news and foreign influence over the media. “Russian propaganda is an issue and a challenge,” he said in response to a question from Financial Times columnist and commentator Edward Luce. “We’re working closely with friends to combat Russian propaganda.” At the same time, Bakhtadke insists that Moscow’s propaganda campaign isn’t succeeding and that pro-Russian parties have “not more than 4-5 percent” support among the public – down significantly from the 2016 parliamentary election.
Russian propaganda sometimes contains blatant falsehoods that are, nonetheless, repeated and passed on. For example, as Georgia seeks admission to NATO and the European Union, inflammatory propaganda falsely claims that would force the country to legalize same-sex marriage and would open the floodgates to millions of refugees from the Middle East.
Moscow’s exercise of “soft power” isn’t happening in Georgia or the U.S. alone. As The Guardian just reported, news organizations in the U.K.” have cited tweets from Russian trolls more than 100 times in stories about topics including Donald Trump and (actors) Donald Glover and Lena Dunham.” Among the news outlets taken in were the BBC, the Telegraph and the Guardian itself.
“While it was rare that the fake accounts were cited as credible by news organizations, their presence in roundups of supposedly grassroots reaction to news events could have altered the perception of how popular the views they supposedly espoused actually were,” the Guardian story said.