The Supreme Court, the country’s highest judicial authority, scheduled a hearing for March 2 over the ongoing ownership dispute of Rustavi 2, Tbilisi-based television channel. Chaired by the Supreme Court Head Nino Gvenetadze, the Court’s nine-judge Grand Chamber will consider the case without oral hearing and its decision will be final.
Stating that Rustavi 2 is ready for “all possible developments in this uneven and illegal battle,” Nika Gvaramia, the director general of Rustavi 2, announced a rally at the Supreme Court building in parallel to the court proceedings and added that the demonstrations will continue “until the Supreme Court issues its ruling.”
“Tomorrow will decide the fate of not only Rustavi 2, but also the fate of the country in the long-run. Tomorrow, the Supreme Court will decide whether free speech will exist in Georgia, whether democracy will have a chance in Georgia, whether Georgia will become a part of the Euro-Atlantic space,” Gvaramia explained.
The announced hearing drew a wide response in the Georgian opposition groups and civil society organizations.
Political Party Reactions
The United National Movement (UNM) announced on March 1 that the party, together with eight small non-parliamentary political parties, will hold a rally in front of the Supreme Court building “to defend free speech and Rustavi 2.”
Delivering the parties’ joint statement, UNM’s Nugzar Tsiklauri explained that since the court hearing will be closed and since “Rustavi 2 and the Georgian society are not allowed into the courtroom,” the nine political parties will launch permanent demonstrations outside of the Supreme Court on March 2 “until final decision is taken.”
Several other opposition political parties spoke in favor of Rustavi 2 on March 1.
Gigi Ugulava, one of the leaders of the Movement for Liberty – European Georgia, stated that the Rustavi 2 case “is not a dispute between two individual parties, as the authorities portray it” and that Bidzina Ivanishvili (the country’s former Prime Minister) and the government “stand behind” Kibar Khalvashi, who seeks reclaiming shares in the Rustavi 2 TV, which he owned about a decade ago.
He also stated that “the situation is extremely alarming” and that the ruling against current owners of Rustavi 2 will harm the entire society, the country and the business sector.
Giga Bokeria of the same party stated that the Rustavi 2 case “will determine the future course” of Georgia and therefore, the objective should be “to maintain the situation, when the government fails to fully control the media environment.”
Nino Goguadze, the political secretary of the Free Democrats, stated that the Supreme Court “will have to decide whether the country maintains the freedom of speech, the prospect for democratic advancement and the main value of democracy – independent media.”
Goguadze added that the Free Democrats will also gather in front of the Supreme Court building “to protect the media outlet, which is independent from the government.”
Stressing that the dispute “is not legal and is political motivated,” Mamuka Katsitadze of the New Rights said that he “does not have positive expectations” from the court hearing. “This will not be a problem of a single media outlet, this will be a problem of free speech and this will be a problem of judicial independence,” he explained.
Giorgi Gugava of the Labor Party echoed the argument that defending Rustavi 2 “means defending free speech and democracy.” “We think that it is the duty of the Georgian society to protect Rustavi 2 together in order to avoid single-handed, informal and oligarchical dictatorship in this country,” Gugava added.
Civil Society Reactions
Giorgi Mshvenieradze, the head of the Georgian Democracy Initiative, stated that “it would be better,” if the Court held an open hearing on the case.
He also added that there is “only one solution” – to overturn the ruling of the Court of Appeals (which grants Rustavi 2 ownership rights to its previous owner), to deliberate on the case again or to return it to the Court of Appeals with clarifications. “Any other decision will not be a judicial decision and it will amount to completing the political order,” Mshvenieradze noted.
Zviad Devdariani of the Civil Development Center stressed that the Court “should not adopt a decision, which will put to question the existence of critical media in Georgia, as well as the country’s Euro-Atlantic integration, since these issues are interlinked.”
“I express a full support to the free and independent press and media pluralism in Georgia,” President of the European People’s Party Joseph Daul wrote in his Twitter post on February 27 following his meeting with the TV station’s Brussels correspondent.
— Joseph Daul (@JosephDaul) 27 февраля 2017 г.
Speaking to Rustavi 2 on February 2, U.S. Ambassador to Georgia, Ian Kelly, said that media pluralism is “the very foundation of democracy” and added that he “would like to see” Rustavi 2 “not change its editorial policy and to keep its opposition voice.”
Parliamentary Speaker Irakli Kobakhidze stated that “the court should be able to deliberate on the case in a calm environment” and that the Parliamentary Majority is looking at the ongoing processes “within its competence.”
Deputy Parliamentary Speaker Tamar Chugoshvili emphasized that the Grand Chamber of the Supreme Court has “sufficient competence and legitimacy” to issue “a proper legal decision.”
Current owners of Rustavi 2 are locked in a court battle with its former co-owner Kibar Khalvashi, who tries to regain control over the television channel. The TV channel, which claims that former owner’s lawsuit to regain the broadcaster is orchestrated by the government with the aim to seize the channel, lost the battle in the court of the first instance and also in the appellate court and took the case to the Supreme Court.