Journalists at Georgia’s last major opposition broadcasting company are digging in and refusing to comply with a court order altering the outlet’s ownership structure. Doing so, they say, would sound the death knell for independent media in the country.
Defiant supporters pitched tents outside the studios of the television channel Rustavi2, forming a human shield in front of the building in response to a March 2 Supreme Court decision to return ownership of the broadcaster to businessman Kibar Khalvashi. “We will continue our work and we are staying on the air,” said Rustavi2’s General Director Nika Gvaramia, who was flanked by the company’s news crews as he spoke.
The governing party, the Georgian Dream, has long criticized Rustavi2 as a hyperpartisan outlet, supportive of Georgia’s self-exiled ex-president Mikheil Saakashvili. But Rustavi2 also has been a must-watch for its critical coverage of the Georgian Dream’s performance. The station may now be headed toward a standoff with law enforcement officials, given that it has mobilized opposition political parties, civil society groups and prominent public figures to defy execution of the court verdict.
The Supreme Court on March 2 rejected the company’s appeal of an earlier verdict to reinstate Khalvashi as majority owner. The company and its supporters allege that the Georgian Dream party and its founder, oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili, influenced the Supreme Court’s decision in order to bring the recalcitrant channel to heel. Government officials deny meddling in the case, insisting that the ownership dispute is strictly commercial in nature.
However, Georgia’s leading human rights watchdogs and freedom of information advocacy groups joined forces in criticizing the Supreme Court’s judgment and earlier verdicts by lower courts, describing the decisions as legally dubious. “All three instances of judicial proceedings, as well as the final result, do not meet the requirement of independent court decision-making, and strengthen our doubts about the government’s crude interference,” several of Georgia’s most prominent civil society groups, including Transparency International Georgia, said in a joint statement.
The United States Embassy in Tbilisi said that it “views with concern” the Supreme Court’s decision that “could effectively limit the access to opposition voices to Georgian broadcast media.” Similar concerns were voiced by international media freedom watchdogs – like Freedom House.
Rustav2’s chief, Gvaramia, said that he and his staff are eager to buy the company back from Khalvashi – an offer the businessman was quick to decline. He said such a buyout could land the station back in the hands of self-exiled ex-president Mikhail (Misha) Saakashvili. “So long as there is a Misha menace, I am not selling the TV company,” Khalvashi said.
The businessman claims that he was improperly strong-armed by then-president Saakashvili to relinquish his majority stake in Rustavi2 in 2006. Gvaramia served as a minister of justice and, later, headed the Education Ministry during Saakashvili’s administration. Leaked phone conversations last year suggested that Gvaramia and Saakashvili maintain close contact, including engaging in strategy sessions to stave off what they describe as a government takeover of Rustavi2.
Many media analysts charge that the court decision could mark the final act in an assiduous campaign carried out by the Georgian Dream to neutralize mass media’s watchdog function. Initially, during the early days of its rule, the Georgian Dream was credited with breaking the Saakashvili-era government’s control of the national airwaves, which were at that time dominated by three news channels: Rustavi2, Imedi and Public TV. But observers say that the Georgian Dream later carried out its own takeover of television news broadcasts, via which the vast majority of Georgians obtain information about the doings of the government.
“We have seen the [Georgian Dream] government slowly but surely moving to usurp the media space, focusing primarily on television,” said Nino Danelia, a media studies professor at Tbilisi-based Ilia Chavchavadze University.
Imedi TV dropped two major current-affairs talk shows in 2015 amid claims of government pressure. The network moved to absorb a small, mostly free-wheeling station, Maestro, and then merged with GDS, a station owned by billionaire Ivanishvili’s son, Bera. Imedi TV now leans toward celebrity gossip and infotainment, and is largely government-friendly. In February, Public TV announced controversial plans to suspend political talk shows citing the need to upgrade both the equipment and content.
Rustavi2 has been seen as the last holdout operating beyond the influence of Georgian Dream officials. One opposition group, the Republican Party, went so as far as to warn in a March 3 statement that the court ruling on Rustavi2 marks a pivotal moment in Georgia’s post-Soviet experience, in which a pluralistic system is giving way to the “formation of an authoritarian regime.”
“The Georgian Dream already has full control of other democratic institutions, like the executive government, the parliament and, as we’ve seen, the judiciary, so full submission of the news media is its goal now,” Danelia said.
The Georgian Dream and Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili refuted those allegations and called for the court’s decision to be respected. The government will “spare no efforts to protect the freedom of the media in the country,” the prime minister’s office said in a statement.
The dispute over Rustavi2’s ownership dates back to the Saakashvili era, when the company went through byzantine, reportedly government-orchestrated, ownership changes. Founded in 1994 in the town of Rustavi, about a 20-minute drive outside of Tbilisi, Rustavi2 gained popularity for broadcasting exposes on corruption and stagnation during the administration of the late president, Eduard Shevardnadze. Eventually becoming the nation’s most watched news channel, Rustavi2 played an instrumental role in catalyzing the Rose Revolution, which brought Saakashvili to power.
Two of the company’s original founders, entrepreneurs Davit Dvali and Jarji Akimidze, claimed they were robbed of the station by the Saakashvili government in 2004. Khalvashi was then seen as one of the government’s many hand-picked favorites to take over Rustavi2, but he too was allegedly forced to sell his stake under duress after a falling-out with the government.
Khalvashi and the two original founders became unlikely allies in the current ownership dispute, with the businessman promising to give half of his shares to Dvali and Akimidze should the court reinstate him as the channel’s majority owner. Following the Supreme Court’s decision, though, Khalvashi appeared to back away from that promise.
With the court decision in place, many media observers and opposition leaders are painting a dark future for free speech in Georgia. Gvaramia said that what was ultimately at stake was “whether free speech will exist in Georgia, whether democracy will have a chance in Georgia, [and] whether Georgia will become a part of the Euro-Atlantic space.”
Other observers remain guardedly optimistic that the government will be unable to control the flow of information. “No Georgian government has won a battle with the media,” said Danelia, the media studies professor. “It may take a long time, but ultimately the government will lose.