Tbilisi City Court suspends Rustavi 2 TV management amidst controversy

Tbilisi City Court suspends Rustavi 2 TV management amidst controversy
By bne IntelliNews November 9, 2015

Judge Tamaz Urtmelidze of the Tbilisi City Court ruled in favour of a request submitted by plaintiff Kibar Khalvashi in the trial for the embattled television station Rustavi 2 TV on November 5, without holding hearings involving the parties.

As per this decision, Rustavi 2 TV's CEO and CFO, Nika Gvaramia and Kakha Damenia, were suspended and temporarily replaced by Ravez Sakevarishvili, former CEO of Tbilisi-based Imedi TV, and Davit Dvali, co-owner of Rustavi 2 TV until 2004.

In response to the court's ruling, Gvaramia said that he would not "leave this building [of the television station], come and get me out by force". Meanwhile, the plaintiffs said that they would not resort to law enforcement to remove Gvaramia and Damenia, but that their refusal to comply with the court's ruling would affect the broadcaster's activity.

"No force whatsoever will be used", according to Paata Salia, one of Khalvashi's lawyers.

Sakevarishvili and Dvali held a press conference on November 5 and told journalists that none of Rustavi 2 TV's employees would be fired and that there would be no political interference in its editorial policy.

On November 4, judge Urtmelidze ruled in favour of plaintiff Khalvashi, who owned the broadcaster between 2004 and 2006, and who sued the current owners in August, claiming that he was forced to sell his shares in Rustavi 2 TV by the administration of former President Mikheil Saakashvili.

The trial for Rustavi 2 TV has become a proxy battle for the current ruling coalition and the main opposition party, United National Movement (UNM), which Saakashvili founded and which governed Georgia until 2012.

With the current management suspended by the court and the appointed managers unable to take their positions, Rustavi 2 TV is facing a period of operational difficulties and leadership vacuum. On November 7, Sakevarishvili and Dvali reached out to Rustavi 2 TV's current owners, brothers Levan and Giorgi Karamanishvili, and told them to name "any person" with power of attorney that would have full authority over the station's day-to-day operations. The Karamanishvilis declined the offer, saying that they "have nothing to talk about with government-appointed political censors."

“Of course we are not going to legitimize political censors through cooperating with them, who have been appointed by the government through circumventing the constitution,” they said in a statement.

International observers, including the EU delegation in Tbilisi and the US embassy, have repeatedly expressed concern over the case of Rustavi 2 TV and its implications for media freedom and the independence of the judiciary in Georgia. On November 7, the EU and US embassies issued a joint statement voicing their concern once again "about the independence of the judiciary and the actual degree of media freedom in Georgia".

“We call on all political actors to refrain from any step or statement that could prevent the Georgian judiciary from ruling dispassionately on this case,” the statement read.

Representatives of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) echoed the above concerns. "This decision by the Tbilisi court seems to contradict, at least in spirit, the decision by the Constitutional Court to suspend immediate enforcement of court verdicts in civilian cases while the appeals process is going on. We are deeply concerned by the implications of this decision, and the questions that are raised about the judicial process as a result of it,” the PACE co-rapporteurs for Georgia, Boriss Cilevics and Kerstin Lundgren, said in a joint statement.

Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili called on the ruling Georgian Dream-led coalition to refrain from making inflammatory statements and added that the Rustavi 2 TV trial is harming Georgia's international image. "Today, we are again facing difficult circumstances that damage the country’s democratic image and international reputation – the public, non-governmental sector, diplomats, public defender, political parties, including part of the Georgian Dream ruling coalition, share this assessment,” Margvelashvili said.