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28.11.2011 10:51

451ºF for Newspapers

David Mchedlidze
Media Discusions

Several months ago the Tbilisi Municipality prohibited selling books in Tbilisi streets and allocated a special space for this at the Mtkvari Embankment.  Part of the society is concerned that the auction announced by the Municipality for putting of booths in the city is an attempt of forcing printed press out of the center of Tibilisi also.  All this looks very much like the situation described by the celebrated American author Ray Bradbury in his novel 451 Fahrenheit.
If we look at the years since the recreation of independence the Georgian newspapers have never been flourishing.  Low availability of information, lack of qualified staff, limited and not free advertisement market, economic poverty of society, low circulation and low revenues – this is the incomplete list of all those problems which hamper the development of the printed press.  During last two years the given list of problems has been “enriched” by the complications with press distribution.  First the selling newspapers from special stands has been strictly limited, which in fact have been fully exiled from subway stations and central stressed and just recently organized auction clearly showed that the Tbilisi Municipality is trying to replace the press distribution booths with multi-purpose trade booths.  The justify the given decision by promoting small the medium business and replacement of old and ugly constructions with new and modern design booths.  Additionally the participants of the Internet auction are not limited in products they can sell – the winning companies can sell other products along with press from booths. 

If we consider the newspaper distribution is a complicated and relatively less profitable business, it is quite presumable that the owners of new, multi-purpose booths will instead of selling newspapers and magazines offer to Tbilisi residents khachapuri, beverages, shaurma, or different sweets…  Someone may argue that it is the main feature of the free market that the market balances supply and demand itself and that socks, coffee and newspapers in fact are not very much different.  Of course anything can be sold in the trade booths, including newspapers, but we should consider several factors:  first – due to lack of space a free businessman will sell more demanded products than newspapers and second – how independent can a businessman winning

the Municipality auction can be? 

Obviously, the last argument would be baseless if we had a free business environment, meaning if we had an environment were the government cannot act as Deus ex machine; a suddenly appearing force that can radically change everything. 
Is our government such a force? 

 Can they help government-loyal businessman, or group of businessmen to win in the auctions in order to hamper distribution of unfavorable newspapers? 

Newspaper owners and editors (except of one magazine and two newspapers) fear that the auctions are organized right for this cause.  If it was otherwise the Tbilisi Municipality would not decide to fully dismantle the press distribution system and would not create unsolvable problems for certain persons working in the given segment of business. 

An auction would be fair and unsuspicious if it was held separately for the press distributors.  Otherwise a situation may be created that it will be impossible to buy newspapers in the central streets of the city.  We should also consider the experience of the neighboring Azerbaijan; monopolization of press distribution network has made the organized distribution of free and government-criticizing publications impossible, while those who know the media specifics understand that without an operation distribution system the work of tens of people goes worthless.  Selling places (its change) and time (hampering) significantly affects the circulation as the information, as a perishable product must be provided to readers timely. 

Dramatic development of events is further promoted by the approach of government to printed media.  Several years ago President said in one of his public speeches that he does not read Georgian newspapers and just recently, at the celebration of the Rose Revolution he called critical journalists – pseudo-journalists.  Considering all the above mentioned the fear of newspaper editors that the oven fire intended for cakes and shaurmas will also burn Georgian newspapers, is not baseless.

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