Explainer: new ECHR ruling might spell end of Georgia’s main opposition TV channel Rustavi 2
The European Court of Human Rights has passed a verdict that may essentially entail a change of ownership of Georgia’s main opposition channel, Rustavi 2.
In its ruling released today on July 18 around 12:00 Tbilisi time, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) said it did not find a single violation of the Convention on Human Rights in the case of the ownership dispute of Georgian TV company Rustavi 2.
The ECHR also did not uphold an interim ruling, which prohibits the enforcement of the decision of the Supreme Court of Georgia adopted in relation to Rustavi 2 in 2017, to be enforced.
This means that the largest opposition channel of the country, Rustavi 2, may soon be taken from its current owners and go to its previous owner, businessman Kibar Khalvashi, who is loyal to the current Georgian authorities.
Given that Georgia is going to the polls for parliamentary elections in 2020, this decision may radically change the political situation in the country.
The scope of the case
After the Georgian Dream party came to power in 2012, an endless litigation began between the owners of Rustavi 2. Today, its founders and first owners David Dvali and Jarji Akimidze, as well as Kibar Khalvashi, who owned the TV channel in 2004-2006, are fighting for the TV channel.
This process entered an acute phase in 2015, when a court ordered Rustavi 2’s assets to be seized. At the end of 2015, a city court ruled that the TV company belonged to Khalvashi, which was later confirmed by the appellate and Supreme Court.
Businessman Kibar Khalvashi, who ran the television company in 2004-2006, has been asking for the return of his shares. Khalvashi claims that he was forced to cede the television company under pressure from the authorities under President Saakashvili.
The authorities tried to present this process as a “dispute between private individuals,” although neither local nor international observers have any doubt that the government was actively supporting these so-called ‘private individuals’, for which the popular TV channel has been an ‘inconvenience.’
Rustavi 2 brought the case to the European Court of Human Rights after all Georgian courts ruled that the current owners of the TV channel were illegitimate.
The Supreme Court of Georgia ruled that Kibar Khalvashi had been forced to sell his shares, and that the agreement on the sale of the television company should be terminated.
However, the Supreme Court’s ruling did not come into force, since on March 3, 2017, the European Court of Human Rights quickly and unprecedentedly considered the petition of the current owners and decided to suspend the execution of the decision of the Supreme Court of Georgia.
In November of the same year, the ECHR accepted the case for consideration – and today it publicly delivered its ruling.
The ECHR was not authorized to resolve the dispute of who actually owns the television station.
Rustavi 2 brought the lawsuit to the ECHR the basis of articles on the right to a fair trial, the right to freedom of expression, the limits on the use of restrictions on rights and the right to the protection of property.
Thus, it was the ECHR’s task to determine whether any of these articles had been violated.
The broadcaster can appeal this decision to the Grand Chamber of the ECHR within three months. If the decision is not appealed in a timely manner, it will enter into force after three months.
However, as Georgian Justice Minister Teya Tsulukiani says, “it’s not a fact that the Grand Chamber will accept this lawsuit, because it is strictly filtering claims and maybe they will not accept it at all,” said Tsulukiani at a special briefing.
The current director of the television station Nika Gvaramia calls the decision of the ECHR in Strasbourg “shocking”, and states that the TV company is going to appeal the court decision in the Grand Chamber.
At a briefing, he also presented his contract, where it is written that if he is released from his position as the director of Rustavi 2 against his will by December 31, 2020, the owners must pay him a substantial amount – how much he did not say.
Gvaramia said that he would leave the post only if this was wanted by the employees of the TV company. Gvaramia says the current management of the television company has at least five or six months to stay in place, and perhaps longer, depending on the Grand Chamber of the ECHR.
“I, we, will fight to the last. For me, this is a matter of life and death”, Gvaramia said.
Rustavi 2 – a key player in Georgia’s modern media and political scene
On June 1, 2019, Rustavi 2 turned 25 years old. Even people critical of the television channel recognize its special role in the modern history of Georgia.
The history of ownership of this channel is long and hazy, because it has changed owners many times.
Transparency International – Georgia says that from 2004 – 2014, the television company changed owners twenty times. And each shift was accompanied by “muddy” stories, so even today many questions remain unanswered.
Behind all these deals was Saakashvili.
During the Rose Revolution, Rustavi 2 openly supported the opposition. In the corrupted era of Shevardnadze, the journalists of the television company denounced officials, broadcast critical reports on the air, and nothing scandalous remained outside their lens. The channel deprived the government of their comfort, which is why they repeatedly tried to smother Rustavi 2.
It was during this period that the television channel reached its peak of popularity.
After the Rose Revolution – as a result of which Saakashvili came to power in 2003 – the channel was called the “TV of the victorious people.” Journalists of the channel were barely given a chance to rest afterwards – they were constantly stopped by people and thanked for their work.
Later, the channel came upon difficult times. The government that came about as a result of the Rose Revolution undertook painful and unpopular reforms, of which the strong, critical press did not approve. In the end, the country’s leading TV channels, including Rustavi 2, came under the control of Saakashvili’s government, and critical political programs and critical topics disappeared from the air.
In 2012, after the change of power in Georgia, all major television channels were reorganized in favor of the ruling Georgian Dream party. The only major channel that broadcasts throughout the country, which has remained under the influence of the opposition, and in particular of ex-President Saakashvili, is Rustavi 2.