Rustavi 2’s head of news, Nodar Meladze, and four prominent journalists at the station will be dismissed, the channel’s newly appointed director Paata Salia said on Tuesday.
Since Kibar Khalvashi regained ownership of Rustavi 2 following a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), journalists have said they fear the channel’s editorial independence would be compromised, despite Khalvashi’s promises to the contrary.
Paata Salia, the new director of the channel, announced the decision in a press briefing where he said that Meladze and other journalists, including Nanuka Jorjoliani, Eka Kvesitadze, Giorgi Laperashvili and Giorgi Gabunia would be fired.
‘We know that there are several people who hinder, and will hinder, the owner [of Rustavi 2] from having a normal, professional relationship with them. There are reports in the media that some journalists currently employed at the channel are going to appeal in order to undo the ECHR decision’, Salia said.
‘We think that these people cannot work here’, he added.
Some of the journalists to be fired have said they will go to work at the Main Channel, a new channel founded by Rustavi 2’s former director, Nika Gvaramia.
A group of Rustavi 2 journalists, fearing that the new owner would interfere in their editorial policy, had suggested making a contract with Khalvashi in which he pledged editorial independence for the journalists. He refused.
In Tuesday’s briefing, Salia spoke about editorial independence and said that News Department Head Nodar Meladze was not a guarantee of editorial independence.
‘I don’t believe that one person is a guarantee for that, you are the guarantee of your free speech’, Salia said. ‘If you think that you can’t do it without Meladze, you have to make a decision yourself, but nobody will interfere in your work’.
He also spoke about Meladze’s possible successor and said that several people were being considered for the position, including Nino Shubladze, who left Rustavi 2 in 2014. Shubladze previously worked as head of news as well as deputy director.
A call to defect
Nika Gvaramia called on journalists at Rustavi 2 to leave and come to work at his new channel.
‘Thos who remain serve the usurper [the ruling Georgian Dream Party chair Bidzina Ivanishvili]. It doesn’t require elaboration. Waiting for you at the Main Channel’, Gvaramia wrote on Facebook shortly after Salia’s briefing.
Meladze said that prior to the briefing, he had been summoned to Salia’s office where he was told that his firing was Khalvashi’s decision.
He also said that two weeks after Khalvashi took over the channel, he was approached by two individuals, whose identities he didn’t disclose, trusted by Bidzina Ivanishvili. He said that he was offered to maintain his position in exchange for implementing an editorial policy under somebody else’s orders.
‘There would be a certain person with whom I’d have to consult over [coverage] topics and plan everything according to his decision’, Meladze said. ‘Rustavi 2’s head of news oversees all news coverage, therefore they would have control over all material. Had I agreed to this, it would be an easy solution for them — I’d remain in my position and the editorial policy would [seemingly] not change, but the temperate and the quality of criticism would go down’.
He alleged that he was told it was in Ivanishvili’s interest to cover the involvement of certain officials in corruption, ‘as he is fighting pilferers of the budget’, but that there are topics he would not be allowed to touch.
He also said that he was planning to appeal his firing in court and create a precedent that would prevent new TV managers from firing journalists as they desire.
Meet the new boss
In July, the ECHR ruled in favour of the Georgian government, greenlighting the transfer of Rustavi 2 to one of its former owners, Kibar Khalvashi.
Georgia’s Supreme Court ordered that the channel be handed back in 2017, but the ECHR put a temporary hold on their ruling until they considered the case.
Gvaramia, who was fired from Rustavi 2 following the ECHR ruling, announced he would found a new TV channel, claiming that Rustavi 2 was doomed to be under control of the government or ‘shut down by the end of the year’
[Read more on OC Media: Georgia’s Rustavi 2 TV transferred to previous owner after ECHR ruling]
The founders of Rustavi 2 Davit Dvali and Jarji Akimidze have also claimed to be the legitimate owners of the company. On 1 August, the two rejected an offer from Khalvashi for 40% of the shares in the channel, saying that this was not justice and accusing Khalvashi of acting in collusion with Ivanishvili.
After Khalvashi’s announcement that he would sell Rustavi 2, the lawyer of Dvali and Akimidze warned potential buyers that they may not be considered as ‘fair buyers’.
Yet another person contesting the ownership of the channel was Ia Kitsmarishvili, the wife of one of the founders of Rustavi 2. On 12 July she made an appeal to the court and demanded that 30% of the company’s shares be transferred to her ownership.