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Supreme Court ruling on Rustavi 2 raises fears over media freedom in Georgia

Rally on 2 March (Sulkhan Bordzikashvili/OC Media)

Seventeen non-governmental organisations in Georgia have issued a joint statement criticising the Supreme Court’s decision to transfer ownership of TV channel Rustavi 2’s to former owner Kibar Khalvashi. They state that the decision damages not only Georgia’s democratic development, but limits freedom of the media, a pluralistic media environment, and threatens the country’s Euro-Atlantic integration.

‘All three instances of judicial proceedings, as well as the final result, do not meet the requirements of an independent court decision and strengthens our doubts concerning the rough interference of the government in the decision making process’, the NGOs write.

On 2 March, the Supreme Court transferred ownership of Rustavi 2 to businessman Kibar Khalvashi, whose opponents accuse him of having close ties to the government. The Court’s decision was unanimous. While the decision is considered final and can’t be appealed in Georgia, the channel’s general director has declared his intention to take the case to the European Court of Human Rights.

Khalvashi was Rustavi 2’s owner in 2004–2006. According to him, he was forced to cede the company under pressure. He filed the court case demanding the return of the company in 2015.

Georgia’s president, Giorgi Margvelashvili, told the media that if the activities of media outlets critical towards the government are limited, it isn’t a problem for only one channel, but for democracy in the whole country.

Rustavi 2, like all independent and uncontrolled media, is a part of the country’s social and political fabric, on which the country’s democratic governance depends. The media is seen as the fourth power, and the independence and critical voices of the media is part of the country’s democracy’, Margvelashvili said.

The president also brought up a statement by the Charter of Journalistic Ethics, which expressed concern over the developments surrounding Rustavi 2.

‘A strong national broadcaster, critical of the government, is vital to Georgia’s democratic development. In addition, it is necessary to ensure the editorial independence of Rustavi 2 and each of its journalist’s freedom of speech and protection of labour rights’, the statement reads.

As soon as the court announced its decision, supporters of Rustavi 2 rallied outside the offices of the TV Company to protest the court’s ruling. Tents were set up, with some protesters staying overnight.

Rally on 2 March (Sulkhan Bordzikashvili/OC Media)

Eka Mishveladze, the President’s spokesperson, attended the rally, where she stated that democracy in Georgia is in ‘great danger.’

‘It would be impossible for me not to come here today, where there is a great danger to free and diverse opinions. Rustavi 2 is a place where unfortunately this is happening,’ she told OC Media.

Levan Kochlamazashvili, one of the participants of the rally, believes that the court’s decision is ‘disastrous’ for the state, because this decision won’t allow the largest opposition TV Channel to retain its independence.

‘This decision was a shame. I wish people would acknowledge what freedom is and try their best to protect it. I came here to protect freedom, because today we fight for freedom’, Kochlamazashvili said to us.

Another activist, Baia Pataraia, tells us that she thinks that the court’s decision was politically motivated.

‘They do not conclude trials like this in a day in normal countries. It is impossible to get familiar with the case in such a short time. As soon as the visa liberalisation issue was decided they shut down Rustavi 2. We shouldn’t give up in any case,’ she said.

The US Embassy in Georgia issued a statement about the dispute last night. The embassy called for the government to take measures to retain a free and plural media environment in the country.

‘The United States views with concern the impact of the Supreme Court’s decision regarding Rustavi 2, which could effectively limit the access of opposition voices to Georgian broadcast media. A pluralistic media environment is essential for Georgia’s democratic growth and Euro-Atlantic aspirations.’ The statement reads.

Gunnar Hökmark, a member of the European Parliament, also issued short statement expressing ‘regret and serious concern.’

‘The decision taken by the Supreme Court today is regrettable, and pose a serious threat to media plurality, editorial independence and transparent media in Georgia. Rustavi 2 must stay independent, and I call on the Georgian Constitutional Court to look into the proceedings of the case and allegations of Government pressure on judges of the Supreme Court.’ the statement reads.

Another member of the European Parliament, Ana Gomes, also expressed concern over the recent developments around Rustavi 2.

Nate Schenkkan, from rights group Freedom House, said in an interview with Rustavi 2 that existing doubts about the independence of Georgia’s judiciary have grown stronger.

‘This decision shows that [the government] has been applying a model of political pressure on the court, the outcome of which is the closure of critical media’, Schenkkan said.

The Delegation of the European Union to Georgia has also issued a statement regarding the Supreme Court’s decision on Rustavi 2.

‘We reiterate the need for protecting political pluralism, freedom of media and access to diverse views. In the present stage, this remains fundamental for the preservation and consolidation of democracy, corresponding to essential commitments contained in the Association Agreement between Georgia and the European Union’, the statement reads.

The Georgian government issued a statement in which it urged the citizens to ‘respect democratic institutions’.

‘The Government of Georgia has a full appreciation and respect towards the freedom of media and does everything to protect and ensure a pluralistic media environment. We strongly believe that respect for the decisions of democratic institutions is essential to the development of the country. At the same time, the Government will spare no effort in ensuring that media freedom and the freedom of speech is protected’, the statement reads.

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