GEORGIA: UNM ON RUSTAVI 2 GOVERNMENT TAKEOVER
On 2 March 2017, the Government of Georgia finalized its takeover of Rustavi 2, the most popular, private, independent critical television broadcaster with an openly pro-Western editorial policy. Against the backdrop of civil protest, through a closed hearing, without participation of the parties, the Grand Chamber of the Supreme Court, of which several judges have either previously reported government blackmail and pressure or have been involved in corruption schemes with the government, made a decision late in the evening, attributing TV company ownership to Kibar Khalvashi, a government ally and brother of ruling, Georgian Dream Member of Parliament.
“Dictatorship has officially been established in Georgia” stated Nika Gvaramia, Director General of Rustavi 2 at a special briefing after the court decision. The United States Embassy noted that “the impact of the Supreme Court’s decision regarding Rustavi 2 … could effectively limit the access of opposition voices to Georgian broadcast media. We urge the Georgian government to take steps to ensure that the media environment remains free, open, and pluralistic”, the statement concludes. The OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Dunja Mijatović, wrote: “Disappointing move [and] huge blow to media pluralism”. Freedom House representative Nate Shenkan noted: “this decision shows that the authorities are putting political pressure on the court, the outcome of which is the potential closure of a critical media outlet”.
Local non-governmental organizations were also unanimous in their appraisal of the court decision; nineteen most influential NGOs released a statement: “all three instances of judicial proceedings, as well as the final result, do not meet the requirements of an independent court decision and strengthen our doubts concerning the aggressive interference of the government in the decision-making process”. Notably, instead of offering legal rationale, the first instance court openly justified its decision through necessity to change Rustavi 2’s editorial policy. The NGO statement also noted: “This decision damages not only the further democratic development of Georgia, but limits freedom of media, pluralistic media environment and threatens the Euro-Atlantic integration process.” Notably, the decision, which had been delayed beyond all legal deadlines, came a day after the EU granted visa liberalization to Georgia. This decision neglects the obligations the government undertook when signing the association agreement with the EU.
Although Rustavi 2 does not recognize the legality of the court decision and views it solely as oligarch Ivanishvili’s move to silence a critical media, in order to mitigate the damage this takeover will have on Georgia’s international image and to avoid increasing civil protest, Rustavi 2 team has taken advantage of Government ally, Kibar Khalvashi’s, public statement regarding his willingness to sell the broadcasting company and is offering to collectively buy up the broadcaster. If in fact the dispute was commercial in nature, as the Government argues, Khalvashi should accept the offer.
The United National Movement strongly condemns the takeover of Rustavi 2. It welcomes the above initiative of Rustavi 2 staff and journalists and calls on the international community to maintain pressure on the Government of Georgia to ensure that Rustavi 2’s independent editorial policy remains intact.