The Supreme Court of Georgia, the country’s highest court of appeal, ruled on March 2 against the current owners of Rustavi 2 TV, the country’s most-watched private television broadcaster, granting the ownership rights to Kibar Khalvashi, who co-owned the channel a decade ago and whose claims many see as orchestrated by the government to silence the opposition-leaning media.
Hundreds gathered in front of Rustavi 2 headquarters to show support for the television channel, just minutes after the Supreme Court’s decision. Broadcasting live from the studio and the TV headquarters non-stop until late night, Rustavi 2 featured a broad spectrum of opposition politicians and civic activists, who claimed that the Supreme Court’s decision was politically motivated and would harm the Georgian democracy.
The Supreme Court’s decision was followed with wide response in the country’s state institutions and civil society organizations.
The Government issued a statement on March 3 emphasizing that the case “has gone through three instances of the independent judiciary” and calling “everyone” to respect democratic institutions.
“The final decision to return the TV Company to its lawful owner was made by the Grand Chamber of the Supreme Court by unanimous decision of nine Supreme Court judges,” the statement said.
“The Government of Georgia has a full appreciation and respect towards the freedom of media and does its best to protect and ensure the pluralistic media environment,” it added.
According to the statement, the Government believes that respecting the decisions of democratic institutions “is essential to the development of the country.” At the same time, the statement said, the Government “will spare no efforts to ensure that media freedom and the freedom of speech is protected.”
Speaking at his special press briefing on March 3, President Giorgi Margvelashvili highlighted that the process had become “politicized from the very beginning due to the interference of politicians” and called on all parties to avoid “hasty steps.”
“Rustavi 2 is not just a business. Like other media agencies, it represents an important component of our public and political life. It gives an opportunity of expressing our critical and diverse point of views, which is extremely important for a democratic society and for the European future of Georgia,” the President stated.
Margvelashvili recalled “the highly damaging” crackdown on Imedi TV in 2007 and called on everyone “to refrain from provocations and criminal decisions.” “Due to the political significance of this case, I would like to call on all parties to wait for and consider the decisions of the Constitutional Court and the European Court of Human Rights and not take any hasty steps,” he added.
If independent and critical media is restricted, Margvelashvili said, “it will be problematic not just for one particular TV channel, but for the country’s democracy as a whole.”
“I am not touching upon the legal dispute … I would like to state that media belongs … to the public, irrespective of the public positions [towards the media]," Margvelashvili stated.
The Public Defender
Public Defender Ucha Nanuashvili released a statement on March 3 saying that the judicial processes over Rustavi 2 ownership “creates a feeling” that the decision “may endanger the diverse media environment in the country, particularly the functioning of the critical media.”
“Media freedom and diverse media environment, important foundations of a democratic state, have been Georgia’s main achievements in recent years. However, recent developments, including that over the Public Broadcaster, can endanger these achievements,” the statement said.
Ucha Nanuashvili also pointed out that the ownership of Rustavi 2 “has not been given due legal evaluation,” since the Court has not deliberated on how Kibar Khalvashi himself, became the owner of Rustavi 2 in 2004.
Nanuashvili explained that the co-founders of Rustavi 2 Davit Dvali and Jarji Akimidze, who also claim that they were forced to sell shares, appealed to the Prosecutor’s Office in 2012 seeking to reclaim ownership of the channel, but the investigation yielded no results.
Therefore, the Public Defender added, along with “the absence of the perception that justice has been restored,” we might also lose the media diversity, which would undoubtedly be a significant step backwards in terms of maintaining high standards of freedom of expression and speech.”
Civil Society Organizations
23 civil society organizations, issued a statement on March 3 expressing “deep concern” over the Supreme Court’s decision.
“All three instances of judicial proceedings, as well as the final verdict, do not meet the requirements of an independent court’s decision and strengthens our doubts concerning the gross interference of the government in the decision making process,” the statement said.
The CSO statement emphasized that the decision “left a clear impression that government has been attempting to take control over the main opposition media outlet, which would significantly damage media pluralism and democracy in Georgia and threaten its Euro-Atlantic integration process.”
Transparency International Georgia, which was among the 23 signatories, published an opinion on Rustavi 2 case outlining several "shortcomings" in the judicial process.
The March 3 statement of the Georgian Charter of Journalistic Ethics expressed “concerns” over the Supreme Court’s decision citing threats to the pluralistic media environment in Georgia.
“The presence of a strong national broadcaster, critical to the government, is crucial for Georgia’s democratic advancement. At the same time, it is important to guarantee the editorial independence of Rustavi 2, to protect the free speech of each of the journalists and their labor rights,” the statement said.
“Infringement on media pluralism, will in the first place, harm the interests of the audience to receive diverse, preferred and interesting information,” the statement also said.
In its statement on March 3, the United National Movement “strongly condemned the takeover of Rustavi 2” and called on the international community “to maintain pressure on the Government of Georgia to ensure that Rustavi 2’s independent editorial policy remains intact.”
The party also announced that it would plan future activities at its political council meeting on March 3.
The Movement for Liberty - European Georgia issued a statement on March 2 condemning the Supreme Court’s decision granting ownership of Rustavi 2, “the country’s most popular TV station and the only large media with clearly pro-western editorial policy, to a proxy of the Georgian Government.”
“The takeover of Rustavi2 ownership marks a major escalation in Georgia’s democratic backsliding. It has been the only major media outlet outside the control of Mr. [Bidzina] Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream which now maintains a constitutional majority. Mr. Ivanishvili has jailed his political opponents, prosecuted pro-western parties and endorsed openly pro-Russian actors himself entertaining anti-western elements. The takeover of Rustavi 2 heralds an absolute concentration of power in hands of one person – an unelected individual, outside the legal framework and without any accountability,” the statement said.
The European Georgia called upon “all friends of Georgia to stand side by side with the Georgian democracy.”