Citizen Journalism in Georgia

Today we live in an age of distinguished technological development. In the last 10-12 years fundamental changes have occurred in media, and media has largely been integrated with social networks. At present, in order to spread information, it is no longer necessary to be a part of a high-rated media institution. This can be achieved by uploading a video on “YouTube”, writing a blog entry, or posting on a social network. Recent technological developments have given better opportunities not only to professional journalists, but also to ordinary citizens. A cellphone equipped with a voice recorder, photovideo camera, and internet connection is a tool – with which anyone can become a reporter. Posting a brief story about an accident or discussing a ‘hot-button’ issue on social media is a guarantee for public attention. According to current determinations, a citizen journalist can be anyone who participates in the process of obtaining and spreading information.

Modern tendencies have come to stay and been developed in specific directions in Georgia as well. Nowadays citizen journalism (CJ) in Georgia is strongly linked with social media and has been merged especially with Facebook. Research shows that Facebook is the most popular social network platform in Georgia. The web traffic analysis tool Statcounter published a graph depicting the social media usage stats in Georgia from October 2017−October 2018, and according to it: Facebook use was at 84.67%, YouTube − 6.33%, Pinterest − 5.21%, Twitter − 1.2%, Instagram − 0.96% and Tumblr − 0.81%. (source: http://gs.statcounter. com/social-media-stats/all/georgia)

Now, many people use social media for receiving information (besides as a tool of communication) instead of traditional media. This trend has been proven by the results of a public opinion poll in Georgia conducted by the National Democratic institute – NDI (research process was fielded by the Caucasus Research Resource Centers – CRRC) in March− April 2018. On the Question: “What are the main information sources for receiving news about Georgian politics and ongoing events” 72% refer to TV as a primary source and 13% refer to it as a secondary source. Regarding the internet, including Facebook, it is in second place among information sources; for 18% of the surveyed population, the internet and Facebook is their first source for information and for 25% − their second. (source: NDI_March_2018_Public Presentation_English_final.pdf p. 77, Q 49, 50) The results show that TV still remains first source of information for Georgian citizens. But, evidently the number of people who receive information from the internet is rising constantly. In 2015, the same question “What are the main information sources for receiving news about Georgian politics and ongoing events” was asked, and only 7% of surveyed population referred to internet as a primary source of information and 20% − as secondary (source: sites/default/files/NDI Georgia_April 2015 Poll_Public Issues_ ENG_VF_0.pdf p. 58, Q 45, 46.) In this survey 87% of people referred to TV as their primary source and 7% – as secondary. To this end, in 4 years the internet and Facebook has increased from 7% to 18% as a primary source of information. Following these figures, it is obvious to see why CJ has developed on the Facebook platform − for CJ, it is the most flexible tool for spreading its product far and wide.

With regard to the history of CJ in Georgia, its development, modern tendencies and perspectives, we met with Assistant Professor Sandro Asatiani – an online communication and social media specialist. Asatiani is the director and co-founder of GeoLab (a mobile and web applications laboratory), author of the textbook “New Media at School”, and trainer in online communication and social network channel development. He has been working in the field since 2010.

When did CJ enter Georgian reality?

It is better to start from the overview of the world events. From this viewpoint, Time Magazine has a good tradition – every year it nominates a “Person of the Year”. In 2006, the Person of the Year was “You”. The main idea was to underline the fact that the ‘person of year’ was each volunteer who published information in internet. Before that, working online was a job for most people. But 2006 was a crucial year, because many citizen journalists appeared who began publishing information on internet out of personal interest. However, from my personal viewpoint, 2008 was a crucial year for Georgia; while sharing information about the Russian-Georgian war was difficult for many news companies, citizen journalists started appearing at the same time. Since then, the field has been developing step-by-step. Notably, we have shifted from blogging to microblogging (Facebook posts to some extent are microblogs) and now we have shorter messages instead of long analysis – and we have stopped there.

What kind of barriers exist in this sphere?

Today, biggest challenge today is fake news and some similar problems, but there are some positive aspects as well. The last elections (editor’s note: In November 2018, Georgia elected new President) revealed the fact that CJ is still being developed, and we have volunteers, but today it is difficult to find the line between a lie and the truth. There is a boom of fake news. Besides, there are bullying facts as well. Traditional media representatives have some obligations, but citizen journalists have no restrictions. To this end, I would like to underline the fact that now, we are at the stage, at a time when people should focus on determining truth from lies and avoid sharing information that could lead to human rights violations. Hence, media literacy is very important – and people should make a habit of critically evaluating products from the media. People themselves are a filter. It needs some more effort to study and refusing of spreading false news. However, when we overcome this problem, a new challenge will arise.

One problem is that people accidently spread fake news, but another problem is that fake news is a propaganda tool. During the pre-election campaigns, there was a deluge of troll pages and fake information put out by both sides against their political opponents – from the ruling party and from the opposition. There are some platforms in Georgia, who seek to debunk fake news stories (for example Myth Detector), but this problem continues to grow.

Can CJ have an impact on public opinion?

Yes, it helps formulate public opinion, take the last US presidential election for example.

The latest research shows that the number of people who receive their information from social media instead of traditional media is on the rise. Will CJ overtake traditional media in the future? What is citizen journalism’s potential in Georgia?

There has been a lot of discussion on this topic. My personal opinion is that the analytical part will remain in the hands of traditional media. When you need the full picture, about topics related to business for example, traditional journalism already offers a solid product. But when spreading current events, CJ has the advantage.

In Georgia, citizen journalism dominates during a crisis, for example in 2015 Tbilisi and the Vere River valley was flooded. There were at least 20 deaths and the Tbilisi zoo was devastated. What sort of phenomenon has it become?

Citizen journalism is strongly linked to civil society. In 2015, social media was a tool. It made it obvious that civil society in Georgia does exist, but we cannot discuss these things separately. CJ is an instrument in the hands of civil society. The more developed civil society is the more effectively it will use this instrument. They do not exist separate from one another.

In what direction may Georgian CJ develop in future?

The process functions a lot like an ant colony. When people started studying ant behavior, they thought there was a hierarchy in ant society – that there is a head ant who directs the others. Researchers began to isolate ants, and discovered that small groups of three or four ants did their jobs without a head. In our case, the process of self-organization is also present; when a problem with fake news arises, people will produce something to counter it. The popularity of Facebook arose from the fact that it was easy to use, and it did not require specific knowledge like Microsoft Windows. Nevertheless, with new technologies new opportunities will appear and someone will invent new platforms. There are discussions that this could be virtual reality for example − when you can see the shape of one of your friends in front of you. It is difficult to predict the future, but it is obvious that new technologies will create new ways of exchanging information.

Nino Chelidze, a former active blogger and the founder of CJ blog, the non-governmental organization Citizen Journalist Club – CJC, and a former volunteer trainer in CJ, shares her professional experiences with us. Nino has been interested in CJ since 2010. She recalls, that one day while searching for information in the Internet, she stumbled upon CJ and she was inspired to start writing in Georgia.

“In 2010 I registered the web-domain I was doing it by myself. It was the first of its kind in Georgia. Actually, it was a blog space for multiple authors. I had no restrictions for the authors, sometimes I even did not know who the author was and they were free to write about anything. For 8 months I had been doing it with much enthusiasm and I liked my job. In 2010, smartphones were not so common and mobile internet service was underdeveloped – everything was much more difficult. Then, IREX announced a grant offer to bloggers and my project won. The project was about regional CJ. I found people I didn’t know to write for the website in rural areas and I asked them to write about their local events. It was pure CJ,” – Nino Chelidze says.

Afterwards, Nino registered her NGO Citizen Journalist Club with the goal of participating in the grant project that was financed by the presidential fund.

“It was a large scale project. We had about 260 articles a month and 6-7 thousand unique visitors a day. These were great results for the time. I had two reporters in each region and I was paying them honorary 10-12 GEL (about 4 Euros) for each piece. The biggest problem was internet access, especially in rural parts of Georgia, but we were successful. We covered every demonstration in Georgia from 2010-2015. For our website we were doing news reporting from the place of event. It was really difficult to compete with the well-financed media organizations, but as citizen journalists we had lots of freedom. We were working outside the traditional journalistic framework and bringing more specific details and persons to light. This was a difficult job, but then everything stopped. The reason was finances. Nowadays, I still pay for hosting my page and hope that one day I will be able to come back to this job. I miss the freedom I felt in CJ. But now we face different technological challenges, as traditional media attempts to adopt CJ methods and the competition is growing”, – Nino says. Media literacy and financing – these are main obstacles for CJ in Georgia, from her point of view. She suggests that it is difficult for nonprofessional journalists to see stories hidden between the facts and events and then be able to tell this story properly to people. Moreover, a lack of financing is also a problem, as it is difficult to work on enthusiasm alone.

If you do a little research, you will see, that most of bloggers on WordPress have stopped updating their media platforms – raising the question: “Why do Georgian bloggers abandon their blogs,” Nino answers that the problem is the same – a lack of financing and motivation.

“The Blogging boom started in Georgia in 2009. I made my first blog in 2009. Between 2009-2012 bloggers were invited to every corporate and governmental event. Ministerial representatives were inviting us to join ongoing projects – this is also a thing of the past. Today the room is free for citizen journalists. We don’t have separate CJ platforms in Georgia, as it is in other countries. Besides, before Facebooks civil forums became very active, and now that everything has merged with Facebook information is quite dispersed. I also attempted to promote information on Twitter but it was always crashing, and there are less people active on Twitter in Georgia“, – she says.

On the question: “Where is Georgian CJ now,” she emphasized that we are not very advanced. “Today technology provides us with many more opportunities. We have smartphones, mobile internet and Facebook live. The potential is enormous, but we stopped using this when I was doing this job. I have nothing optimistic to say. Once again, and again main reason is financing. This sphere should become more commercial and should include an educational component”- she says.

Some traditional media organizations try to adopt citizen journalism for its benefits and establish CJ departments in their companies, but these attempts are still not successful in Georgia. As Nino Chelidze remarked, even Georgian Public Broadcasting failed in their attempt.

Mamuka Kusiani, the editor in chief of “Pirweli” News Agency explained that their CJ project has failed. As he described, the project “Became a Journalist of PIA” that was tailored practically to any age and social group of citizens, who was interested in the events around him/her. The main aim of the project was to raise citizen participation in civil activities and raise awareness for interesting events.

The Project idea was intended to mobilize those people with news (equipped with a smartphone and coverage – practically all of Georgia) and connect them with Media Company “Clipart” internet editions PIA.GE and M2B.GE. Advanced media organizations in the rest of the world have long seen the importance of CJ. The experience of the last few years has shown the particular and special activities in this direction, as CJ directly supports increase of individual responsibility. This has been confirmed by plenty of CJ produced material. Our media platform Pia is open to receive information from Citizen Journalists. After we fact check submissions we always release the information product.

What was a benefit for your media company from that project? Was personal engagement high?

Unfortunately, most Georgian citizens who are socially active, feel comfortable and satisfied when they publish something in a social network. In this case, the risk is that the information published is an accidental piece of propaganda, is high. To the contrary, in the case of cooperating with media organizations, the accumulated information product goes through editors and fact checking in line with journalistic standards and as such the chance of releasing something containing propaganda decreases significantly. Hence, I am convinced that Georgian society will soon decide to cooperate with professional media organizations, as it is in Western Europe and the United States. To this end, in the present moment, I can only say project as a good idea, because the end result was equal to zero. The project failed.

Mamuka Kusiani feels that the development of new media is an inevitable process in Georgia and it has already improved to a certain extent, but the development of new media is absolutely dependent upon further development of social media tools. “New media has already become an alternative to traditional media. I would not underline any special characteristics in Georgian social media”, – he added.

Furthermore, Mr. Kusiani predicts that in parallel to the development of civil society, civil engagement in media projects should increase in the future.

“Alt-Info” is a conservative analytical media project. The platform was established by several young male volunteers almost a year ago with the aim of spreading conservative values through new media. Platform representatives point out that in spite of the fact that most Georgian population is conservative orthodox, media outlets are overwhelmingly in the hands of liberal values-oriented people. Thus, they decided to cater to a conservative audience. The platform is not financed by any power, even their equipment – voice recorder, video camera, and video editing tools have been purchased by the platform founders themselves. As Shota Martinenko, the co-founder of the platform explains that they faced a strange reaction from Georgian society towards Civil Journalists.

“People, who use our web page and social network pages, often complain about the poor quality of video voice, video editing, lighting, video graphics and other technical errors, but at the same time they say that it’s a shame to call people and ask funds to help financially support the development of the platform. They want citizen journalism, but they even do not like when we call for charity and to pay, for instance for internet and communal costs. Our society cannot realize that people in Georgia earn too little money to finance their hobbies, and volunteering cannot last forever. We are citizen journalists, but we are not well-off enough to finance all our expenses indefinitely. People want the same level of service as it is in capitalistic countries, but simultaneously, they want the control as if they are in a socialist system. Consequently, if ordinary people do not support civil activism, we have no future” – Shota Martinenko says.

To summarize, we can conclude that the main idea behind citizen journalism is the enrolment in the process of spreading information only for the sake of society’s interest. However, this process is not well organized and is hindered by some factors in Georgia. We can discuss weak and strong points of CJ in Georgia. The weaknesses are related to Georgian civil society which has still not managed to become a strong unit. In spite of the fact that our western partners are helping Georgia to further develop civil society, the challenge still remains unsolved. I am an editor at Civil Society Portal One part of the web-portal is Civic Journalism. From time to time I cover regional issues for the website. From my experience, I can say that it is too difficult to mobilize people and to get them involved and interested in reporting and civic advocacy. It requires huge effort from me to gain information from people living in the rural regions, about their local problems. Some people are really proactive and ready to cooperate, and their contribution is valuable, but they are too few in number.

On the other hand, there are some cases when CJ really works in Georgia and has had an influence on the decision-making process. In August 2018 for example, a Facebook user spread a photo with the text, stating that inside the Turtle Lake park in Tbilisi, construction had started and dozens of trees had been cut down. This created a huge negative social reaction and civil activists even organized a protest at the construction site. Tbilisi inhabitants demanded the immediate termination of the hotel project. Soon thereafter Kakha Kaladze, the mayor of Tbilisi, declared that the construction was illegal and promised that the hotel would not be built in the recreation area.

We can say that Citizen Journalism is not very well developed in Georgia and faces some specific problems, such as: fake news, lack of civic activism, lack of financing, as well as a lack of self-organization, spontaneity, and instability in its development process. On the other hand, it has great potential, as it can promote civic protest against harmful problems and put pressure on the government in its decision-making process. Moreover, citizen journalists can play a valuable role when a crisis is underway and help create support by mobilizing society to help solve the problem. Citizen journalists have the potential to engage with the audience and encourage them to participate in charity, the local problem-solving process, and any other positive changes. Besides, CJ often is a good source of information for traditional media as well. Finally, citizen journalism is an effective government oversight tool; there are many recent examples when a video or photo was the reason for a governmental structure or representative losing power because of their incorrect attitude towards an issue.

To this end, citizen journalism is a tool in the hands of civil society and it is necessary to reform and transform this tool into a powerful instrument, which could play a positive role in the democratic development of Georgian society.

Text: Lika Kasradze, Autumn 2018

Note This article reflects the opinion of the author. It does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Kultur Aktiv.

Traces of Togetherness

The article was written as part of the project “Traces of Togetherness“.

Gefördert durch das Auswärtige Amt der Bundesrepublik Deutschland.