Jailing of Georgian Media Owner Raises Questions on Press Freedom

Nika Gvaramia imprisoned for abuse of power in a sentence largely seen as a retaliation for his criticism of the ruling party.

Jailing of Georgian Media Owner Raises Questions on Press Freedom

Nika Gvaramia imprisoned for abuse of power in a sentence largely seen as a retaliation for his criticism of the ruling party.

Nika Gvaramia, editor-in-chief of TV Mtavari Arkhi, was sentenced to three and half years in jail on charges of abuse of power while serving as director of Rustavi 2, an independent broadcaster he ran until 2019. He is shown during a protest held in 2017 in support of Rustavi 2, whose ownership was changed by Georgia's the Supreme Court in 2017.
Nika Gvaramia, editor-in-chief of TV Mtavari Arkhi, was sentenced to three and half years in jail on charges of abuse of power while serving as director of Rustavi 2, an independent broadcaster he ran until 2019. He is shown during a protest held in 2017 in support of Rustavi 2, whose ownership was changed by Georgia's the Supreme Court in 2017. © Courtesy of N Gvaramia
Wednesday, 25 May, 2022

The jailing of a prominent journalist and editor-in-chief of a pro-opposition TV station has raised concerns about Georgia’s commitment to press freedom and democratic values.

On May 16, a Tbilisi court sentenced Nika Gvaramia, presenter and editor-in-chief of Mtavari Arkhi (Main Channel), to three-and-a-half years in prison, and fined him 50,000 Georgian Lari (16,670 US dollars).

He was convicted on charges of abuse of power while serving as director of Rustavi 2, an independent broadcaster he ran until 2019. His lawyer, Dito Sadzaglishvili, labelled the ruling “illegal”.

“Gvaramia was taken into political captivity. Political repressions are under way in Georgia,” he told reporters. “In democratic countries, journalists are not jailed for their dissenting views.”

A lawyer by background, Gvamaria is close to former president Mikheil Saakashvili and held the posts of prosecutor general, minister of justice and minister of education in his government between 2007 and 2009. He is also one of the attorneys representing Saakashvili after he was arrested for abuse of power in October 2021 upon returning to the country after eight years in exile.

The country’s media professionals have long accused the ruling Georgian Dream party of using state institutions, including the judiciary, to stifle independent voices.

“If Gvaramia was arrested on fabricated charges, it means that [the authorities] can detain any journalist who is unacceptable to them,” Tazo Kupreishvili, editor of the Netgazeti news outlet, told IWPR. “Independent media struggle financially; businesses are afraid to advertise [with us]. We have no access to public information; the doors of government agencies are closed to us. Journalists of critical media outlets are often physically assaulted. All this poses a serious threat to the existence of independent media, and without it, democratic development is impossible.”

Opposition parties, rights groups and diplomatic representations echoed his views, accusing the government of abusing the judicial system and warning that it damaged the country’s EU membership aspirations.

Georgian Dream rejected all claims, labeling them part of an “hysterical campaign”.

Reporters Without Borders’ Annual Index on press freedom ranks Georgia 89 out of 180 countries, a dramatic decline from the 60th place it held in 2020. The press freedom watchdog recorded “an unprecedented level of physical violence against journalists” and warned that "official interference undermines efforts undertaken to improve press freedom".

Gvaramia left Rustavi 2 in 2019 after an ownership dispute resulted in the European Court of Human Rights upholding a decision by Georgia's Supreme Court to return the TV station to one of its former owners. The journalist accused the government of using the judiciary system to give ownership to Kibar Khalvashi, a businessman seen as loyal to the ruling party.

COMPLEX CASE

The court found Gvaramia guilty of negotiating an unfavourable advertising deal in 2015, which, according to the Prosecutor’s Office of Georgia, cost Rustavi 2 about 6.8 million Lari (2.3 million dollars). He was also accused of abusing his position as he allegedly exchanged advertising rights with ad company Proesco Media for a Porsche Macan S company car that he then used as his own.

According to the prosecutor’s office, in 2019 Proesco Media paid 76,700 euro (81,793 dollars), corresponding to the price of the car, to the dealership in exchange for advertising time on Rustavi 2.

Gvaramia’s defence labelled the imprisonment over the 2019 procurement and use of the company car as “absurd,” stating that the then-company owners testified in court that he was allowed to buy the car, which he then used since it was an asset of the company he was managing.

Rights groups, including the Public Defender of Georgia and the anticorruption watchdog Transparency International (TI) Georgia analysed the case, concluding that there were no legal grounds for holding Gvaramia criminally liable.

"An entrepreneurial decision may not lead even to corporate liability, not to mention criminal liability,” the office of Public Defender Nino Lomjaria wrote in a letter to the Tbilisi court.

Gvaramia was acquitted on charges of money laundering, bribery, and forgery as originally requested by the prosecutor’s office, which announced it would appeal. His co-defendant Kakhaber Damenia, Rustavi 2’s former financial director, was found guilty of embezzlement and ordered to pay a 50,000 Lari (17,500 dollars) fine.

In a statement, the US embassy in Georgia said that “from its inception, this case has raised questions, including about the timing and the charges,” adding that the ruling "calls into question Georgia's commitment to rule of law, and further demonstrates the fundamental importance of having an independent, impartial judiciary”.

The ruling came at a crucial time. On March 3, a week after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the government applied to join the EU alongside Moldova and Ukraine.

Support for EU membership is strong across the political spectrum, but opposition political parties fear that the ruling will affect Georgia’s path to Brussels.

“Using the judiciary as a political tool will call into question our candidacy for the EU,” Irakli Kupradze, a member of the Lelo for Georgia party, told IWPR.

Kupradze warned that the government’s actions had been distancing Tbilisi from Brussels, adding, “Gvaramia’s arrest is a clear sign that Georgia’s European choice is in jeopardy and that the Georgian Dream is on its way to Russia.”

As Georgia works on its EU application, the bloc voiced five setbacks in “the judiciary and rule of law” including the lack of “credible investigation and prosecution of the organisers of” mass violence against over 50 journalists on  July 5, 2021.

“By arresting Gvaramia, the authorities are telling other media outlets that the critical activities are dangerous and punishable. This will have a negative impact on the media environment, which has already significantly deteriorated over the past year,” TI Georgia’s media programme manager Mamuka Andghuladze told IWPR.

A well-known and controversial figure, Gvaramia has been a vocal critic of the ruling party since it rose to power in 2012. He has publicly accused the government of persecution, citing attempts to bribe, intimidate and blackmail him, including with footage featuring details of his private life.

In 2012, he became of Rustavi 2 director and remained at the helm of the opposition TV station until July 18, 2019 when the Strasbourg court returned it to its former owner. Gvaramia resigned and established Mtavari Arkhi TV, which became a leading national channel.

Davit Dvali, who co-founded Rustavi 2 in 1994, set up a media freedom fund to support Mtavari Arkhi, making a first contribution of 10,000 Lari (3,515 dollars).

“Today the frontline runs here,” he told IWPR. “The attack on the main opposition channel significantly reduces the chances of Georgia’ centuries-old efforts to establish its place in the commonwealth of civilized countries [the EU]. I think it is our duty not to allow the government to silence the TV channel and to support the critical media with whatever we can.”

This publication was prepared under the "Amplify, Verify, Engage (AVE) Project" implemented with the financial support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Norway.

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