Georgian Public Defender Nino Lomjaria has slammed the publicly funded Adjara Public Broadcaster for violating the labour rights of three of their former journalists. In recent weeks, the organisation’s new management has continued to dismiss and reassign journalists critical of the channels new management and new editorial direction.
In a report released on 27 April, Lomjaria said the channel had failed to follow the proper procedures during disciplinary reviews against their head of news, Shorena Glonti, and news anchor Teona Bakuridze — both of whom were ultimately dismissed.
She said that both were deprived of their right to be involved in the proceedings against them and to ‘respond to the allegations with relevant legal arguments’.
There was also no ground, according to the Public Defender, to move the former deputy head and news editor Maia Merkviladze to a position that previously did not exist.
Giorgi Kokhreidze, Director of Adjara TV, fired Bakuridze on 13 March, citing her refusal to fulfil her duties including instructions coming from her superiors.
Two weeks earlier, Kokhreidze fired Glonti, arguing that she had abused her power by unilaterally spending money to launch a talk show in 2018 in collaboration with the Georgian office of the Washington-based National Democratic Institute (NDI).
On 19 February, the management entirely abolished the position of deputy head of news, forcing Merkviladze to move to the radio news department.
The Public Defender found these decisions disproportionate and baseless and said they ‘contradicted the principles of the labour law’. She recommended Giorgi Kokhreidze restore all three of them to their previous positions.
Dismissals and reassignments during a state of emergency
Glonti, Merkviladze, and Bakuridze are only a few of those to be removed from key news positions by Kokhreidze since he took over Adjara TV last November.
These latest changes all happened since Georgia announced a state of emergency on 21 March and the journalists — all vocal critics of Kokhreidze — have been working from home.
A group of Adjara TV journalists who have formed a union to fight the changes ultimately decided to abandon a planned strike in late March, after the state of emergency was announced.
The team behind the ‘Hashtag’ talk show, almost all of whom were involved in the union, found out on 22 March they had been suspended indefinitely. According to Hashtag, the management cited a need to dedicate air-time to covering the coronavirus outbreak.
Earlier in March, Malkhaz Rekhviashvili, Hashtag’s anchor and the Head of the recently formed union, told OC Media that their struggle for labour rights was also a means to preserve their editorial independence.
The Human Rights Education and Monitoring Centre (EMC), a Tbilisi-based rights group representing three journalists mentioned in the Public Defender’s latest report, lambasted Adjara TV on 22 April for ‘persecuting and controlling’ their own journalists.
‘Attempts to change editorial policy’
In her 27 April statement, the Public Defender underlined that the labour rights violations identified by her office had ‘further strengthened suspicions of attempts to change the free and impartial editorial policy of Adjara TV’.
Lomjaria expressed a similar concern in February, referring in both instances to events in the Adjara Public Broadcaster a year ago.
In April 2019, Adjara TV’s Board of Advisors, currently dominated by members nominated by the ruling Georgian Dream party, impeached Director Natia Kapanadze who warned that the channel’s editorial independence was in danger.
Four months before firing her, Kokhreidze raised his voice live on air at Teona Bakuridze, blaming her for government officials avoiding her show.
The incident followed the Executive Secretary of Georgian Dream Irakli Kobakhidze and the party Chair Bidzina Ivanishvili criticising Bakuridze and accusing her of being biased.
During the last national elections, the OSCE hailed the channel, which broadcasts nationally, as ‘the only TV station that offered viewers a general comparison of contestant platforms’.
The Georgian Charter of Journalistic Ethics noted in late 2018 that since 2016, Adjara TV ‘has been transformed… into an unbiased broadcaster’.
Developments in Adjara TV over the past year have been criticised by international media rights group Reporters Without Borders and the Media Advocacy Coalition — a group of 10 Georgian rights groups. Both warned of a possible attempt by the government to control the channels editorial policy.