Court’s order on Rustavi 2 TV asset freeze in a dispute over Georgia’s leading broadcaster’s ownership fails to meet standard of justification, which should be applied to cases where not only the interests of private entities, but also public interests are at stake, Tbilisi-based legal advocacy and rights group, Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association (GYLA) said.
In a separate statement also on August 10 a group of seven civil society organizations also stressed on lack of justification of the decision, which has number of “shortcoming”; they also noted that although ownership dispute is between private entities, it “raises questions” over political meddling.
Kibar Khalvashi, who co-owned Tbilisi-based Rustavi 2 television station in 2004-2006, has filed a lawsuit seeking to claim back his shares in the broadcaster. As an interim measure pending verdict, the Tbilisi City Court judge Tamaz Urtmelidze ordered asset freeze, which bans Rustavi 2 TV’s current shareholders to sell shares, as well as to sell or rent out broadcast equipment, vehicles and other property owned by the company; executive powers of its general director and chief financial officer have also been limited. The judge rejected applicant’s request for freezing broadcaster’s bank accounts.
Rustavi 2 TV will appeal the decision on asset freeze to higher court. Rustavi 2 TV, as well as some opposition parties, including UNM and Free Democrats, have condemned Khalvashi’s bid to reclaim shares in the broadcaster as government-orchestrated attempt to take over the television station critical of the Georgian Dream ruling coalition.
GYLA said in a statement after examining court’s order that the dispute over Rustavi 2 TV is “especially sensitive issue”, not only because it concerns a media company, but also because this is the most watched television station, which is critical of government. “Therefore, this dispute between the two private entities, no matter of its outcome, has not only legal, but also a significant political context,” the group said.
It said that although in general, in practice and from the legal point of view, low standard of reasonable assumption is applied when court decides on choosing injunctive measures, in this particular case, ordering broad range of simultaneous injunctive measures, among them, limiting chief executives’ powers, was disproportionate and “may damage the company and hamper its operations.”
“It will affect functioning of a media organization and it is obvious that it will damage not only interests of a private entity but also public interests – that is pluralistic media environment and to disseminate freely critical opinion,” GYLA said, adding that while taking the decision, the judge should have been guided not only by relevant provisions of the law, but should have also taken into consideration possible damage that the media outlet may suffer.
It also notes that decision on asset freeze will be in force pending final verdict over the ownership dispute, which may last for months and even for years.
GYLA also noted that while taking decision in favor of plaintiff on injunctive measures, the judge failed to consider obligating the plaintiff to compensate for any possible damages for the defendant incurred as a result of asset freeze in case of losing the court case.
In a separate statement seven non-governmental organizations, among them Transparency International Georgia, International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy, Open Society Georgia Foundation, also point at the political context of the dispute, noting that it is “fraught with high risk of control and restricting of media outlet’s operations.”
“Hampering of functioning of country’s most watched television channel will pose a threat to pluralistic and free media environment in the country. This factor may become especially problematic ahead of the 2016 parliamentary elections,” reads the statement.
Since 2004 the television station has changed hands multiple times and most of those changes in its ownership structure were intertwined with politics.
Kibar Khalvashi, who claims that he was forced by the previous authorities to give up his shares in Rustavi 2 TV in 2006, obtained controlling stakes in the broadcasters in 2004 from three of its founders – Davit Dvali, Jarji Akimidze and the late Erosi Kitsmarishvili, who also claimed years later that they were forced to give up their shares in 2004.
On August 9 Rustavi 2 TV’s co-founders and former co-owners, Dvali and Akimidze, released a written statement backing legal proceedings over the broadcaster’s ownership dispute, saying that it “has no alternative.”
“We hope that the court proceedings will be completely transparent and unbiased. It will be able to reveal and to give legal assessment to a criminal system of violence and manipulation against media freedom and Rustavi 2, which was exerted consistently by the state since 2004… As a result, instead of free television channel, the society received a propaganda machine owned by a single party [referring to formerly ruling and now opposition UNM party]. We, as the founders of the Rustavi 2, were one of the first victims of this violence,” Dvali and Akimidze said in their statement, adding that it would be “immoral” to try portray the dispute and court proceedings as pressure on media. “We call on everyone – the public, political parties and non-governmental organizations, diplomatic corps – to face the truth; Rustavi 2 is a party television under UNM’s control and it has nothing to do with independent media.”