Will the opposition channel stop broadcasting?
Thousands of people joined a rally in Tbilisi to support Rustavi-2 TV. Rally participants say the authorities are trying to close an independent broadcaster and restricting freedom of speech.
The posters that the protestors brought to the Rustavi-2 TV building said ‘Hands off Rustavi-2’ and ‘Rustavi-2 belongs to people.’
Street rallies in support of Rustavi-2 TV started after the Tbilisi city court had launched consideration of Rustavi-2 TV ex-owner, businessman Kibar Khalvashi’s petition. Khalvashi claims the broadcasting company was illegally confiscated from him in 2006 and demands its return under his ownership.
Rustavi-2 TV supporters believe the private dispute over the TV channel, which is currently underway in court, was initiated by the authorities. They say the authorities are actually trying to influence the opposition TV company’s editorial policy through replacing the TV channel owner.
International and local non-governmental organizations share the view. They say they have many questions about the trial, and, in particular, about the impartiality of the judge.
‘Not only is Rustavi-2’s case vague in the media context, but it also raises many questions about functioning of the court and the prosecutor’s office,’ said Ana Natsvlishvili, the head of an influential non-governmental organization Georgian Young Lawyers Association (GYLA).
U.S. Department of State also commented on Rustavi-2 TV’s case. U.S. State Department Deputy Spokesman Mark Toner, stated that ‘closure or potential closure of a major TV station would shrink the media space in Georgia significantly, and that’s a cause for concern’. ‘We take seriously any actions that would give the appearance of compromising media pluralism. Our ambassador to Georgia, Ian Kelly, has already discussed this case with the president and prime minister,’ he said.
The tension around Rustavi-2 TV escalated as early as in August this year, when the court seized the TV channel’s property on the basis of the petition of its former owner, businessman Kibar Khalvashi.
Khalvashi claims that in 2006 Saakashvili forced him to give up on the TV channel by threatening him with imprisonment and complete destruction of his business.
The authorities deny any links to Kibar Khalvashi. However, ex prime minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, who still unofficially rules the country, admitted in one of his televised interviews that he had met Khalvashi in Munich and had promised to help him get the TV company back.
Rustavi 2 TV company‘s management and reporters claim that through Khalvashi the authorities are trying to get a grip on the TV channel, which is inconvenient to them, in order to clear the information field ahead of the parliamentary elections.
‘The elections are due in a year and the government’s rating has dropped considerably. Thus, the critical information that could be heard on our company’s air is unacceptable for them. If the authorities get away with it, it will be the end of pluralistic media in Georgia,’ said Zaal Udumashvili, Rustavi-2 TV Deputy Director General.
As far as Rustavi-2 TV case is concerned, certain parallels have been drawn with Russia of the 2000s and the closure of NTV channel. In case of NTV, the processes were also passed off as ‘a dispute between two private entities’, said Udumashvili.
The TV company’s director general Nika Gvaramia made a special statement live on air of Rustavi-2 last week, saying the authorities threatened to disclose secretly-recorded videos showing what he described as his ‘private life’ in an attempt to force him to resign. Inquiry into Gvaramia’s statement has been already launched.
Rustavi-2 was established in 1994. It is one of the largest, most popular and influential national broadcasters.
Since then, the TV channel has changed hands several times and, in most cases, the sale-and-purchase process was rather vague. Kibar Khalvashi, who, at that time, was a businessman close to Saakashvili’s government, bought the TV company in 2005. However, his bona fide ownership raises many questions, since the initial owners of the TV channel – Erosi Kitsmarishvili, Davit Dvali and Jarji Akimidze – all claimed they had been forced to cede the TV company ownership rights to Kibar.
The TV company’s current owners are Karamanishvili brothers – businessmen who are close to ex-president Mikheil Saakashvili.
In their statements, representatives of the ruling Georgian Dream coalition often refer to Rustavi-2 as ‘a mouthpiece of the National Movement.’
In case, the court settles the dispute in favor of Kibar Khalvashi, the TV channel supporters threaten to organize permanent protest rallies.
Several tents have been already pitched outside Rustavi 2 TV company’s building. According to the protesters, they will physically defend Rustavi 2 from the authorities’ attempts to burst into the building.
The authorities have flatly denied any involvement in the developments around Rustavi 2. Georgian prime minister Irakli Garibashvili warned Rustavi-2 supporters that the law-enforcers’ response to any illegal actions would be harsh.
Georgian president Giorgi Margvelashvili made a contrary statement, saying that ‘civil stability in the country is at risk’ and calling on court to ‘refrain from making hasty decisions that might further aggravate the situation’.
It’s interesting that in parallel to these processes, the authorities are inquiring into the case of conspiracy with the aim to take over state power, which is already linked to Rustavi-2 TV. One of the Ukrainian web-sites published a text of what it alleged was the transcript of a conversation between ex-president Mikhail Saakashvili and former Georgian state security secretary Giga Bokeria saying they would use Rustavi-2 to cause unrest in the country. The security service has already instituted criminal proceedings under the anti-state conspiracy article. Meanwhile, CCTV cameras have been installed and the law-enforcers have been patrolling the whole perimeter outside the Rustavi-2 TV building.