VIENNA, 9 October 2015 - The International Press Institute (IPI) and the South East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO) today urged authorities in Georgia to ensure that a legal process addressing a dispute over ownership of influential independent broadcaster Rustavi 2 TV is fair, impartial and transparent.
In early August, a court presiding over a lawsuit filed by former Rustavi 2 TV owner Kibar Khalvashi issued an order seizing all property owned by the channel. Khalvashi filed the suit seeking to reclaim shares in the company that he claims he was forced to surrender.
The August order was followed by another order on Oct. 1 for the seizure of shares in the television company Sakartvelo, which owns 51 percent of shares in Rustavi 2 TV.
"Given the need for free and independent media coverage in advance of parliamentary elections set for 2016, IPI is concerned that these court decisions could hinder Rustavi 2 TV's ability to provide the electorate with vital coverage of news and political developments," IPI Director of Advocacy and Communications Steven M. Ellis said. "We are also concerned by the accusations of government involvement. The ability to freely share and receive information is a fundamental component of fair elections, and we urge the government to take all steps to ensure that this principle is respected."
According to news reports, the dispute is further complicated by the alleged involvement of the Georgian National Agency of Public Registry (NAPR), which is connected to the country's Justice Ministry.
Lawyers for Rustavi 2 TV are claiming that NAPR has deliberately delayed approval of an investment contract that would have provided the station with a $6 million lifeline. The delay, the lawyers say, allowed Khalvashi time to request a court order freezing the assets of TV Company Georgia, which was to have provided the investment.
NAPR has rejected the allegations.
"Do not be deceived by what you see now on TV screen," Nika Gvaramia, general director of Rustavi 2, said at a news conference on Oct. 1, where he was accompanied by a group of the station's journalists. "The fact that we are now broadcasting does not mean that the government is not doing everything in order to cease our broadcasts."
He added: "Today we are as close to ceasing broadcasts as never before"
Akaki Minashvili, a member of Georgia's largest opposition party, United National Movement, slammed the developments surrounding Rustavi 2, calling them "proof of [governing party] Georgian Dream's and [former Prime Minister Bidzina] Ivanishvili's choice". He accused the part of wanting "to suppress freedom of expression, freedom of speech and suck blood from the country".
A group of Georgian media development and transparency NGOs last week expressed "well-founded" concern that the ownership dispute was part of an effort to silence Rustavi 2 TV due to the channel's critical reporting.
Since 1994, Rustavi 2 TV has enjoyed a reputation as the country's most-watched critical broadcaster. It was closed down in 1996 for about a year and was the target of government harassment in 2001 after broadcasting investigations into official corruption.
The first regular hearing in the ownership proceedings is scheduled for Oct. 19. Gvaramia, in the meantime, appealed to viewers to donate money to Rustavi 2 TV, asserting: "I promise to the government that before Rustavi 2 TV is closed down, it will be you [the government] who will be shut down."