Controversy continues around Georgian TV channel Rustavi 2 with allegations of politically-charged changes in editorial policy following a hotly contested change in ownership.
On 22 July, Jarji Akimidze and Davit Dvali, the founders of Rustavi 2, criticised the Georgian government’s ‘inactivity’ over its failure to return ownership of the channel to them, in their capacity as the channel’s founders and original owners.
Akimidze and Dvali said they found the government leaving the issue of ownership up to ‘one private individual’s’ goodwill ‘unacceptable’.
The ‘private individual’ they were referring to was Georgian businessman Kibar Khalvashi, who owned Rustavi 2 in 2004–2006. Ownership of the channel was returned to him following a ruling by the European Court for Human Rights’ (ECHR) to remove the temporary hold on Georgia’s Supreme Court’s 2017 decision to restore him as owner.
In 2017, the ECHR used the interim measure to inhibit the execution of the Georgian Supreme Court ruling while they examined claims by Sakartvelo Ltd and Levan and Giorgi Karamanishvili, then-owners of the channel. But on 18 July, the ECHR found that their right to a fair trial had not violated.
This allowed Khalvashi to resume ownership over Rustavi 2 the same day. That afternoon, Khalvashi repeated an earlier promise he made in 2015 to give 50% of the shares to the original owners — Akimidze and Dvali.
So far, this has not happened, which triggered speculation that Khalvashi had had a change of heart.
The news production team of Rustavi 2, many opposition groups, and several leading NGOs have accused the chair of the ruling Georgian Dream party, Bidzina Ivanishvili, of being behind Khalvashi. They have argued that this was his attempt to cement control over the media in Georgia.
A similar sentiment was voiced by Akimidze and Dvali on Monday.
‘Today there is only one man standing between us and restoring justice, between us and the TV channel that we founded, and it’s not Kibar Khalvashi’, their statement read.
Tipping the balance
In a statement released on Monday, Akimidze and Dvali accused the government in 2004 of ‘trampling fundamental democratic values like freedom of speech and a right to property’ by a ‘violent’ takeover of their TV channel.
Several days after Khalvashi was returned ownership of Rustavi 2, Irakli Okruashvili, a former Defence Minister and former ally of Mikheil Saakashvili, claimed he was the real owner of Rustavi 2. According to him, Saakashvili’s government had used Khalvashi in 2004 as a formal middle-man.
On 21 July, Dvali shared with the media what he said was testimony from Okruashvili given during the 2014 Prosecutor’s Office investigation into the ‘misappropriation’ of Rustavi 2’s shares.
In it, Okruashvili identified the founder of the United National Movement party (UNM) and former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili (2004–2013), and his close allies, Zurab Adeishvili and Ivane Merabishvili, of conspiring to pressure Akimidze and Dvali to give up their shares in the channel.
While criticising the current government in their 22 July statement, Akimidze and Dvali also said that Rustavi 2 needed to be free from ‘party influence’ in order to restore the channel’s function as an ‘unbiased watchdog’.
The ruling Georgian Dream Party, the conservative opposition Alliance of Patriots Party, as well as non-parliamentary groups critical of the UNM, have frequently accused Rustavi 2 of being a mouthpiece for the UNM.
Rustavi 2’s management instead they were a platform open for any ‘pro-Western’ group critical of the Georgian Dream government.
On 18 July, hours after the ECHR ruling was made public, Khalvashi appointed his own lawyer, Paata Salia, as director of Rustavi 2. Salia replaced the controversial former Georgian General Prosecutor, Nika Gvaramia, who ran the station for seven years.
Khalvashi named Gvaramia as the only persona non grata of the staff under his watch.
Editorial independence under Khalvashi: Conditions apply
On 22 July, Khalvashi criticised his own channel’s programmes for their ‘shocking statements’ about the European Court for Human Rights (ECHR) and its judges. He said these would damage the channel’s ratings and also strengthen ‘anti-Western sentiments’ in Georgia.
The previous night, Rustavi 2 journalist Eka Kvesitadze dedicated a section of her almost two-hour-long Sunday night show to the 18 July ECHR ruling that made the transfer of ownership of the TV channel possible.
She discussed the idea that the Strasbourg-based court and its judges may have been compromised by Russia, a suggestion that figures in the UNM had floated after hearing the ECHR decision.
The European Georgia Party, a spin-off of the UNM, and several NGOs, including the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association, described these messages as ‘anti-Western’ and ‘dangerous’.
Kvesitadze’s show Kviris Aktsentebi (Weekly Key Points) also offered views alternative to this line of reasoning on Sunday.
Khalvashi, who immediately after the regaining ownership promised he would not intervene into the newsroom editorial policy, warned that editorial independence did not include ‘operating outside the framework of ethics’ and ‘satisfying someone’s caprices’.
‘Enjoying full editorial independence is possible only within the framework of internationally recognised media standards’, Khalvashi said.
[Read more on OC Media: Georgia urges international community to react to vulgar tirade against Putin on Rustavi 2]