Former owner regains control of Georgia's Rustavi 2 TV

By bne IntelliNews November 4, 2015

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The former owner of Georgian TV station Rustavi 2 has won his court case to regain control of the independent broadcaster, which was taken from him under former President Mikheil Saakashvili.  The case has sparked allegations that the government is shutting down opposition media as it prepares for a close fight against Saakashvili's United National Movement (UNM) party in next year's election.

Kibar Khalvashi owned Rustavi 2 TV between 2004 and 2006, and filed a lawsuit against the current owners, brothers Giorgi and Levan Karamanishvili, in August, claiming that that he was forced to sell the broadcaster at below market value by Saakashvili's government. On November 3 Judge Tamaz Urtmelidze of the Tbilisi City Court ruled in favour of  Khalvashi.

The highly politicised ownership trial has turned into a proxy battle for the ruling Georgian Dream-led coalition and the opposition UNM party, which Saakashvili founded. Saakashvili is the current governor of Odesa Region in Ukraine, and is wanted in Georgia. He is believed to continue to pull the strings at Rustavi 2 TV.

The largest television station in Georgia, watched by 28% of viewers, Rustavi 2 TV is very critical of the current government's policies. It also reportedly makes more in advertising revenue than several of its closest competitors combined.

The November 3 decision will be appealed against at the Court of Appeals, according to Zaza Bibilashvili, the defendants' lawyer. "What happened is exactly what we were predicting - dark dictatorship of (the former prime minister, billionaire businessman, and founder of the Georgian Dream party) Bidzina Ivanishvili has been formalised. Tamaz Urtmelidze is not a judge, he will definitely be held responsible for he did today," Bibilashvili told the media after the decision. Bibilashvili and his team left the courtroom in protest while the judge was still reading the verdict.

The Court of Appeals' decision can also be appealed. If that happens, the Supreme Court will decide the final verdict.

Khalvashi released a statement after the verdict, trying to reassure Rustavi 2 TV employees that it would be business as usual, but that, under his ownership, the television station would adopt a more independent line. He also took a jab at Saakashvili, saying that "Saakashvili was defeated in court today, and he is no longer the owner of the Rustavi 2 TV company...Today's verdict represents a real beginning of restoration of justice".

Rustavi 2 TV has had various owners throughout the years, many of them reportedly Saakashvili's allies or offshore companies with unknown owners. The Karamanishvili brothers are little known to the Georgian public and are believed to be the former president's allies. Meanwhile, Khalvashi is believed to be supported by the governing coalition.

The Georgian judiciary is currently undergoing a process of reform aimed at enhancing its independence from politics. On September 29, Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili signed a law reforming the prosecutor's office, but stated that he was not satisfied with the extent to which the proposed law reformed the prosecutor's office. His office told the media that Margvelashvili had repeatedly advised the government about "the need for a comprehensive reform of law enforcement agencies, as well as the importance of the prosecutor's office being free from political influence".

Meanwhile, Nika Gvaramia, the broadcaster's director general, was summoned for questioning by the State Security Service (SSS) on November 3, in a separate investigation into an attempt to overthrow the government allegedly orchestrated by Saakashvili, Gvaramia and UNM leader Giga Bokeria. 


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