Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Georgian TV Dispute Gets Nasty

Government accused of trying to silence major broadcaster.
By Sopho Bukia

Georgia’s largest independent television station is battling for survival as a legal dispute threatens to shut it down.

Supporters of Rustavi-2 TV say it is the victim of a government intent on silencing its critics. The government denies any involvement in the legal case, which has tipped the station into financial crisis.

Rustavi-2’s assets were frozen in August by order of the Tbilisi City Court, which is hearing a complex lawsuit brought by Kibar Khalvashi, a former owner who sold his controlling stake in the station a decade ago. Khalvashi is trying to regain control of the company on the grounds that it was taken away from him illegally when President Mikheil Saakashvili was in power.

The current owners say the seizure of Rustavi-2’s assets could drive it to bankruptcy. At a hearing on October 26, the court refused to admit a claim filed by Rustavi for compensation for the losses it had suffered due to the asset freeze.

Rustavi-2 is still seen as sympathetic to the former president and his United National Movement party, although the latter lost power in 2012 and Saakashvili stepped down a year later and is now in Ukraine.

Levan and Giorgi Karamanashvili, two brothers who now hold the controlling stake in Rustavi-2, were hoping to prop it up by selling their shares in another company, Sakartvelo TV. However, on day the deal was due to go through, the state agency with oversight of such transactions refused to approve it. It then transpired that the Tbilisi court had frozen the assets of Sakartvelo TV.

Managers at Rustavi-2 said this was a further sign that the authorities were doing everything they could to create financial problems for the station.

Director general Nika Gvaramia accused the government of exerting undue influence on the courts. He warned that the station was in imminent danger of closure because it had run out of money. In a special broadcast on October 1, he urged viewers to donate money to save it.

“This is not a fight for Rustavi-2, it’s a fight for freedom of expression, for independent thought and for democracy,” he said.

In the broadcast, Gvaramia made it clear that his channel supported the UNM and other opposition parties.

“Based on its pro-Western values, Rustavi-2 is loyal to the United National Movement, the Free Democrats and President [Giorgi] Margvelashvili,” he said.

Although Margvelashvili is a member of Georgian Dream, he has been critical of Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili.

In an interview with Rustavi-2 the day after Gvaramia’s broadcast, Margvelashvili emphasised the importance of upholding media freedom.

The Free Democrats left the ruling coalition last year, accusing it of moving away from Georgia’s pro-Western stance.

Last week, Gvaramia claimed he was the victim of a dirty-tricks campaign. Speaking on October 21, he said an unknown caller had warned him that revelations about his personal life and phone-tap material would be made public, and his family would suffer, unless he conceded defeat in the court case.

Also last week, hundreds of people gathered in a show of solidarity outside Rustavi-2’s Tbilisi headquarters. Protests also took place outside the Tbilisi offices of Bidzina Ivanishvili, the billionaire who founded of Georgian Dream coalition. Although he has not held public office for the past two years, he is still closely associated with the administration.

On October 22, Margvelashvili delivered an emergency address to the nation in which he warned that the crisis had grown into a “threat to the constitutional order”.

Civil society activists believe the legal action against Rustavi-2 may be part of an effort to cow opposition media before next year’s parliamentary election.

“This is a deliberate campaign against critical media in general, in order to suppress the media sector,” Elene Khoshtaria, founder of the Georgian Reform Association (GRASS), told IWPR.

Eka Gigauri, executive director of Transparency International-Georgia, told IWPR that it was hard to restrictions on the media as anything other than a consequence of “political influence and interest”.

Giorgi Kandelaki, a UNM member of parliament, compared Rustavi-2’s position that of Russia’s station, NTV, which was raided by tax police and subsequently changed hands after it criticised President Vladimir Putin in 2000.

“This is a kind of Putinisation,” UNM lawmaker Giorgi Kandelaki told IWPR. “Just as Putin took control of NTV then, Ivanishvili is now trying to gain control of the only large independent broadcaster. There is only one year left until the election, and the government has nothing positive to offer its citizens, so Ivanishvili wants to suppress the sole source of truth.”

Officials deny claims of interference in the Rustavi-2 case specifically and insist they have no intention of curbing the media.

“I rule out the possibility that the authorities have put pressure on the media, or that they have interfered in these proceedings,” said Eka Beselia, chair of the Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights and Civil Integration. “The country’s leadership ensures the independence of the judiciary and of judicial decisions.”

UNM representatives said they would be consulting with other political groups about the possibility of demanding that next year’s election be brought forward.

Sopho Bukia is an IWPR-trained journalist who works for the Indygo magazine in Georgia.