Parliament voted down on Friday a draft statement tabled by opposition UNM party, expressing “concern over government pressure” on Tbilisi-based private broadcaster, Rustavi 2 TV, which is in a court battle over ownership dispute.
“Obviously coordinated actions by the executive and judicial branches of the government against Rustavi 2 TV pose threat to the existence of [the broadcaster], hugely damage media pluralism and freedom of expression and, consequently, country’s Euro-Atlantic integration,” reads the statement, which was rejected by the Georgian Dream parliamentary majority group.
Parliamentary debates over the proposed text, which started on October 15 and continued for a second day on October 16, were aired live by the Rustavi 2 TV. Lawmakers from the Free Democrats opposition party were not present at the debates.
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During the debates UNM lawmakers claimed that a lawsuit by Rustavi 2 TV’s one of the former co-owners, Kibar Khalvashi, who wants to reclaim his shares in the broadcaster, is in fact an attempt by ex-PM Bidzina Ivanishvili and the current government to take over the opposition-minded television station. They were describing Khalvashi as Ivanishvili’s “puppet” and “stooge”.
UNM lawmakers say that “taking over” of Rustavi 2 TV by the government would “de-legitimize” parliamentary elections, scheduled for October, 2016.
“By refusing to adopt this statement the parliamentary majority assumes responsibility for developments that will take place if political process losses legitimacy in the lead up to next year’s parliamentary elections,” a senior UNM lawmaker, Giorgi Gabashvili said. “[Adoption] of this statement would have signaled that at least the parliament is not part of government-orchestrated attack on Rustavi 2 TV.”
UNM MP Giorgi Gviniashvili said during the debates: “I am confident that there are people within you [the GD parliamentary majority group], who understand the threat [Rustavi 2 TV is facing], but fail to confront Bidzina Ivanishvili, who wants to silence Rustavi 2 TV.”
The opposition lawmakers were also claiming that judge Tamaz Urtmelidze, who is adjudicating the court dispute, is under the government’s control.
On October 12 prosecutor’s office filed criminal charges against mother of judge Urtmelidze in connection to a domestic incident that occurred a year and nine months ago.
Rustavi 2 TV and UNM claim that timing of initiating criminal charges, which comes after ownership dispute case was assigned to Urtmelidze, suggests that the authorities want to exert pressure on the judge using possible prosecution of his mother.
Prosecutor’s office denied allegation and said that initiating criminal charges in sensitive cases of domestic incidents more than a year later is a standard procedure as parties involved are given time for out-of-court settlement.
Echoing government’s position, during the debates, lawmakers from the GD ruling coalition were denying any involvement in the Rustavi 2 TV case, saying that the dispute is between the private entities; they were saying that Khalvashi, who owned the broadcaster in 2004-2006, had the right to file a lawsuit if he believes his property rights were infringed and it would be pressure on the judiciary if the Parliament adopts a statement about ongoing court dispute.
GD MP Pati Khalvashi, who is a sister of Kibar Khalvashi, said that his brother had to flee to Germany, where he was granted asylum, because he was “prosecuted for political reasons” and his businesses raided when UNM was in power. She said that UNM lawmakers were trying to mislead the public while claiming that her brother took legal actions to reclaim the broadcaster only recently, adding that Khalvashi first filed complaint with the prosecutor’s office about eight years ago, but his claims about being forced to give up Rustavi 2 TV shares have never been investigated.
During the debates the GD lawmakers were also criticizing Rustavi 2 TV as UNM’s “mouthpiece”, but were also saying that they would also come in defense of the broadcaster if it faces threat.
“The party of executioners, which raided Imedi TV [in November, 2007] is now speaking about media freedom,” GD MP Nukri Kantaria said of UNM.
“This farce that we are seeing here is like wolves speaking about the rights of sheep,” he said, adding that this fuss over Rustavi 2 TV aims at preparing ground for street protests as UNM has no chance of returning back into power through elections.
“The only option left for your bosses in Ukraine [referring to ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili who is now governor of Odessa region in Ukraine] is a sniper, a terrorist act to liquidate Bidzina Ivanishvili… to trigger a chaos in the country and use that chaos for taking power as you have no chance whatsoever [to come into power] through constitutional means,” he said.
“We [GD] gave back free choice to the people, which had been taken by you [referring to UNM], and no one will be able to take this free choice away from the people anymore; those who will go beyond constitutional order, no matter who they are, will suffer broken legs and hands, and their teeth will also be broken with the use of law, with the use of even the most lenient laws… You won’t be able to trigger turmoil,” MP Kantaria added.
In his speech, another GD MP Zakaria Kutsnashvili distanced himself from MP Kantaria’s remarks, saying that “no one has the right to threaten others in the name of law.”
UNM’s Gabashvili responded that GD and its government are “completely bankrupt and resort to open threats.”