A Tbilisi City Court judge’s decision to appoint temporary managers in Rustavi 2 TV and the way it was taken, without an oral hearing, “is politically absolutely damaging” for the government, ex-PM Bidzina Ivanishvili said.
“When they [opponents] say that the government and Ivanishvili are pulling strings in court… including [in respect of a decision] imposing [temporary] managers [in Rustavi 2] – politically of course it [such decision] is absolutely damaging for the government and personally for me, and if I am really behind this process I am clever enough not to have instructed [the judge] to take such a decision,” he told journalists on November 10.
Had he really had any influence over the judiciary, Ivanishvili said, he would not have given the opponents such a “trump card – appointing a manager without an oral hearing.” “Of course politically it was not favorable for us,” Ivanishvili said.
Rustavi 2 TV former owner Kibar Khalvashi’s lawsuit seeking to reclaim his shares in the broadcaster is seen by Rustavi 2 TV, many opposition parties and civil society activists as a politically motivated ploy by the government to silence the opposition-minded channel.
Ivanishvili said that he too has “questions” about the court’s decision to change Rustavi 2’s management, but it should be only up to the judiciary itself to make the decision during the appellate proceedings.
The appellate process in common courts can last for weeks or possibly even months; but meanwhile, from the legal point of view, Rustavi 2 TV is facing a leadership vacuum as its direct general and financial director, appointed by the current owners, are suspended and temporary managers, appointed by court upon the plaintiff’s request, are not able to perform their duties. The current owners of the broadcaster say that they will “not legalize” temporary managers, whom they described as “political censors”, by cooperation with them.
The Georgian National Communications Commission said on November 9 that the existing situation “creates a real threat to hinder, or even more to suspend, broadcaster’s relations with third parties, which in turn may cause a suspension of broadcaster operations and [result into] a failure to comply with obligations imposed on [the broadcaster] by legislation.”
Rustavi 2 TV hopes to resolve the issue, at least for now, through a constitutional court complaint, which it filed after the Tbilisi City Court ordered a replacement of management.
Lawyers of Rustavi 2 TV owners argue that the court’s decision to change management is in conflict, at least in spirit, with the November 2 ruling of the Constitutional Court, which suspended an immediate enforcement of court’s verdicts in civil disputes while case is still in appeals process.
This ruling of November 2 by the Constitutional Court meant that although ex-owner Khalvashi won his case in the court of first instance, he was not able to ask for an immediate enforcement of this verdict and change of ownership pending an appeal by respondents.
In an attempt to circumvent this ruling by the Constitutional Court, Khalvashi’s lawyers filed a motion seeking a temporary remedy in a form of court injunction requesting for change of management. Tbilisi City Court judge Tamaz Urtmelidze ruled in favor of Khalvashi’s motion.
Lawyers representing Rustavi 2 TV’s current owners lodged a new complaint with the Constitutional Court requesting a suspension to also cover a clause of the civil procedure code based on which the decision on replacement of the management was taken by the judge.
The Constitutional Court started a hearing of this complaint on November 11.
One of the reasons cited by the Tbilisi City Court judge behind his decision was that under the current management the broadcaster was overly focused on coverage of Rustavi 2 ownership dispute and it was fraught with risk of change of the TV station’s programming, affecting also its most watched programs. The judge also said that media outlets should be providing coverage of all the issues “representing public interest” without being “concentrated only on one issue.”
These points from judge’s decision were slammed by many civil society and media activists as an attempt to determine media outlet’s editorial policy and an attempt of “censorship”.
Ivanishvili said that the public is “split” over the situation surrounding Rustavi 2 TV. He said that “a very large part of the society” is angered by what he called was opposition UNM party’s attempt to portray ownership dispute in court as a threat to the country and freedom of media; he said that “much smaller” part of the society which thinks that this is “really struggle for media freedom.”
Commenting on negative international reactions to developments over Rustavi 2 TV, Ivanishvili said that many “inaccurate” statements are made; he also said that “numerous ignorant statements” have also been made in the past by OSCE, Council of Europe or the European People’s Party; he also said such statements were result of “false information” provided by opposition UNM party.
He, however, also added: “We have no right to ignore or respond rudely, we should respect all those statements and heed them.”