Georgia’s anti-government Rustavi 2 television channel will be handed back to a former shareholder under a March 2 ruling by the Supreme Court. Judges ruled in favour of Kibar Khalvashi’s ownership claim in a landmark case that has sparked criticism of Tbilisi over the politicisation of the judiciary and freedom of press in the country.
Rustavi 2 is the country's most watched channel and is markedly opposed to the government, having historically favoured the leading opposition party, the United National Movement (UNM). Over the past year and a half, its current owners, brothers Giorgi and Levan Karamanishvili, who are close associates of UNM founder and former President Mikheil Saakashvili, have been battling former shareholder Khalvashi over the ownership of the channel.
Rustavi 2 supporters and the opposition accuse the ruling Georgian Dream party, and particularly its founder, billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, who is largely believed to control political power in the country, of seeking to undermine freedom of speech by silencing a critical voice.
Khalvashi sold his share in the broadcaster in 2006, but filed a suit against the current management over how the sale was managed. He lost a first trial and an appeal, before taking the case to the Supreme Court.
On March 2, the nine-judge grand chamber of the country's highest tribunal ruled in favour of the return of all shares in the broadcaster to Khalvashi and a company owned by him, Panorama Ltd. The court took its decision without conducting an oral hearing.
The television channel is currently managed by Nika Gvaramia, who held various government positions including justice minister and education minister when the opposition party was in power between 2003 and 2012.
The Rustavi 2 trial has, over time, drawn criticism from the likes of the Venice Commission, the EU's human rights watchdog, and Amnesty International over the partiality of the judiciary and effects on freedom of expression in the country.
Ten days before the ruling, Rustavi 2 called on its supporters to demonstrate in favour of the broadcaster; 10,000 did so on February 19. On the evening of March 2, after the verdict was announced, hundreds gathered in front of the broadcaster in a show of support. Rustavi 2 broadcast live from its studios throughout the night, accusing the Supreme Court decision-makers of being politically motivated.
"Rustavi 2 is the country’s only major critical media and today it was announced that it will be handed to Bidzina Ivanishvili, We believe that the situation in the country is extremely tense,” said Gvaramia in a broadcast statement.
Gvaramia pointed out that Khalvashi had announced plans to sell Rustavi 2 in an earlier interview with TV Pirveli, and appealed to him to sell the broadcaster to its staff.
The UNM announced that the party would convene a political council meeting on March 3 to decide on further action.
Meanwhile, the US embassy in Tbilisi expressed concern over the impact of the decision on the opposition's access to broadcast media.
"A pluralistic media environment is essential for Georgia's democratic growth and Euro-Atlantic aspirations. We urge the Georgian government to take steps to ensure that the media environment remains free, open and pluralistic," a statement from the embassy read.
The press freedom representative of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Tbilisi, Dunja Mijatovic, also expressed disappointment at the decision in a late-night tweet on March 2.
The Supreme Court's verdict is final. More protests over the decision are expected in the coming days and weeks.