The Georgian Prosecutor’s Office has charged Avtandil Tsereteli, whose son owns independent TV channel Pirveli, with participating in the group money laundering of almost $17 million.
Following the charges on Thursday, Pirveli’s owner, Vakhtang Tsereteli, accused the government of ‘blackmail’.
The charges involve a case launched last year against the former board chair of TBC Bank Group, Mamuka Khazaradze, and former deputy chair, Badri Japaridze. The two bankers were charged on 24 July and released on bail two days later.
In early August, the Prosecutor’s Office questioned Vakhtang Tsereteli as a witness in the case. According to the authorities, he was the owner of two companies involved in the alleged 2008 money laundering scheme.
‘Now you’re blackmailing me with the person dearest to me. I’m telling you again: you won’t get TV Pirveli! [...] While I am alive, our channel will not be shut down nor will it change trend’, Vakhtang Tsereteli wrote on his Facebook page on 22 August.
The ‘trend’ refers to a threatening letter that Khazaradze claimed to have received from Interior Minister Giorgi Gakharia after the first round of presidential elections in October last year.
Khazaradze claimed in February that in the letter handed over to him by an intermediary, Gakharia demanded Pirveli adopt a ‘trend’ of editorial policy similar to Imedi, a channel that last year openly committed to preventing the formerly ruling United National Movement Party from coming back to power.
Vakhtang Tsereteli, who is a friend of Khazaradze’s, confirmed that his TV channel has been ‘attacked’ several times, without elaborating further.
TV Pirveli anchor Nino Zhizhilashvili claimed as early as in February 2018 that they had received ‘concerning signals’ from the government aimed at changing the content on the station.
On 13 August, Nana Aburjanidze, the Commercial Director of Pirveli, told OC Media they had been targetted by a ransomware cyber-attack, disabling them from broadcasting properly.
Pirveli’s management said later that day that the authorities had launched an investigation ‘in time’ but said they remained sceptical about the inquiry.
A number of government critics have claimed that the prosecutions were selective and political, also owing to the fact that Khazaradze himself, currently facing 9–12 years in prison, said he was to the launch a political opposition movement after the summer.
Critics, including Gia Khukhashvili, a former advisor to then-Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, pointed out on 24 July that the case over financial operations that happened 11 years ago had no plaintiff nor an injured party.
‘Owning a television [station] does not guarantee that one won’t face questions from the prosecution’, the leader of the parliamentary majority, Gia Volski told journalists after the announcement of the Prosecutor's Office.
Similarly, a number of members of the ruling Georgian Dream party earlier insisted that going into politics should not prevent an investigation into a crime, pointing out that Mamuka Khazaradze made public his political plans only after he was indicted.
The opposition European Georgia and the United National Movement parties have connected the investigation into Khazaradze and Japaridze to the Anaklia Deep Sea Port project on Georgia’s Black Sea coast, which the two have undertaken since 2017.
The opposition groups claimed Bidzina Ivanishvili, the Chair of the ruling Georgian Dream party, was sabotaging the project, possibly in favour of the nearby port of Poti.
[Read more on OC Media: TBC Bank founder Khazaradze charged with money laundering]
Rustavi 2: Foxcatcher instead of the news program
The charges against Avtandil Tsereteli came two days after the prime time news programme of Rustavi 2, Kurieri (‘courier’), stopped airing due to a conflict between the news production team and the channel’s new management.
On 21 August, most of the news staff, including the anchors, departed en mass in protest against the firing a day earlier of head of news, Nodar Meladze, and four prominent journalists at the station.
[Read more on OC Media: Rustavi 2 fires head of news and says more journalists to be let go]
The journalists said on Wednesday that they were unable to work under the ‘control’ of Bidzina Ivanishvili.
Facing dismissal from the channel, Rustavi 2’s head of news, Nodar Meladze, claimed on 20 August that he had been approached by associates of Ivanishvili’s who offered to maintain his position in exchange for implementing an editorial policy under the supervision of his representative.
On 21 August, Rustavi 2 aired the 2014 American film Foxcatcher, a biographical drama about controversial philanthropist John du Pont, instead of their regular news broadcast. The move did not go unnoticed by viewers, with many government critics comparing du Pont to Georgian billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili.
The same evening, Rustavi 2’s former Director, Nika Gvaramia, again urged the departing journalists to join his newly established Mtavari Arkhi (‘main channel’), which he vowed would replace Rustavi 2 and continue the efforts to keep the Georgian government in check.