Rustavi 2 TV broadcasts live while protesters gather in front of its headquarters in Tbilisi, March 2, 2017.
The Supreme Court of Georgia, the country’s highest court of appeal, ruled on March 2 in favor of the former co-owner of Rustavi 2 TV, the country’s most-watched television broadcaster.
Chaired by the Supreme Court Head Nino Gvenetadze, the Court’s nine-judge Grand Chamber considered the case without oral hearing on March 2 and issued its ruling on the same day, granting the ownership rights to Kibar Khalvashi.
Hundreds gathered in front of Rustavi 2 headquarters to show support for the television channel, just minutes after the Supreme Court’s decision.
Broadcasting live from the studio and the TV headquarters non-stop until late night, Rustavi 2 featured a broad spectrum of opposition politicians and civic activists, who claimed that the Supreme Court’s decision was politically motivated and would harm the Georgian democracy.
United National Movement (UNM) announced that the party will convene a political council meeting on March 3 to elaborate plans for future activities. UNM members also started to set up tents in front of Rustavi 2 headquarters.
The United States Embassy issued a statement late night on March 2 saying that the U.S. “views with concern the impact of the Supreme Court’s decision regarding Rustavi 2, which could effectively limit the access of opposition voices to Georgian broadcast media.”
“A pluralistic media environment is essential for Georgia’s democratic growth and Euro-Atlantic aspirations. We urge the Georgian government to take steps to ensure that the media environment remains free, open, and pluralistic,” the Embassy also said.
OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Dunja Mijatović, expressed “disappointment” over the Supreme Court’s decision.
“Disappointing move and huge blow to media pluralism in Georgia,” Dunja Mijatović stated in her twitter post.
— Dunja Mijatovic (@Dunja_Mijatovic) March 2, 2017
Current owners of Rustavi 2, including brothers Giorgi and Levan Karamanishvili, ex-president Mikheil Saakashvili’s close associates, have been entangled in a court battle with its former co-owner Kibar Khalvashi, who tries to regain control over the television channel, which he co-owned in 2005-2006.
Rustavi 2 TV ownership changed for multiple times after Khalvashi sold his shares and before brothers Karamanishvili became majority shareholders in 2011. But Khalvashi claims that all those changes of ownership were in fact sham deals and brothers Karamanishvili are also nominal shareholders of the Rustavi 2, which he insists, is in fact under Saakashvili’s control.
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.
Rustavi 2 TV and many of the opposition parties say that the court case is an attempt by the authorities, and specifically by ex-PM Bidzina Ivanishvili, who is widely considered to be still wielding much influence on government, to silence the television station critical of government’s policies.