Sun, 15 Sep 2019

A verdict by the European Court of Human Rights has cleared the way for a government-friendly owner to take control of Georgia's most-watched news network and the top opposition voice in the country, Rustavi2.

On July 18, the Strasbourg-based court revoked its freeze on a Georgian court's decision to hand Rustavi2 over to its former owner, businessman Kibar Khalvashi. The network's management claims that Khalvashi's designs on the station are part of a plan by the ruling Georgian Dream party to silence its main journalistic opponent, and said it plans to fight the change in ownership.

The station's general director, Nika Gvaramia, drove the point home by wearing military fatigues to a post-verdict press conference.

"It's no accident that I'm wearing military camouflage. It is an intentional statement: if war they want, war they shall get," Gvaramia said.

Gvaramia said he will not let Bidzina Ivanishvili, the billionaire chairman of the Georgian Dream party, take over and muzzle the channel. He dismissed Khalvashi as a pawn of Ivanishvili, who many see as the real power behind the scene in Georgia, installing loyalists in top positions across all branches of government.

The channel, which recently made waves internationally after a prime-time host let loose a vulgar tirade against Russian President Vladimir Putin, has long been battling Khalvashi's ownership claims. The businessman claims that then-President Mikhail Saakashvili administration twisted his arm to sell his majority stake. Gvaramia was a minister under Saakashvili and remains a loyalist of the exiled president.

The Rustavi2 case went to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in 2017 after the channel's current management lost its case to Khalvashi in Tbilisi City Court and had exhausted all domestic avenues of appeal. In its complaint to the ECHR, Rustavi2 challenged the independence of the Georgian judiciary and claimed all court decisions in favor of Khalvashvi were politically motivated.

Following the appeal, the ECHR suspended the Tbilisi court's decision to restore Khalvashi's ownership rights and temporarily froze Rustavi2's assets pending an inquiry into station's claims of bias at the city, appeal and supreme court levels in Georgia. Now, more than two years later, the ECHR dismissed Rustavi2's claims and dropped its injunction.

"The Court found in particular that all but one of the allegations of bias had either been unsubstantiated or unconvincing," the EHCR said in a news release. The court said that even the one "arguable claim of a lack of impartiality" of one judge in the case was duly addressed and dismissed by the Georgian Supreme Court.

The ECHR also noted that over the course of proceedings in Georgia Rustavi2's owners repeatedly made recusal attempts against several different judges "in a probable attempt to paralyze the administration of justice." The European court also said that Gvaramia made "gratuitous and virulent attacks in the media against domestic judges involved in examining the ownership row and against the Georgian judiciary in general."

Rustavi2, and Gvaramia in particular, are known for their vitriol against Georgian Dream and Ivanishvili. But for government critics, the channel is the last major bastion for critical coverage of the government. The other national news network of comparable size, Imedi, is by contrast usually dismissed by media watchdogs as a lapdog of the authorities.

Welcoming the ECHR decision as a major victory, Khalvashi vowed not to interfere editorially in Rustavi2's work, while insisting that Gvaramia has to go. The businessman plans to install his attorney, Paata Salia, to replace Gvaramia. The news staff of Rustavi2 said in a statement that they do not trust Khalvashi's promises. "We believe that Khalvashi represents Bidzina Ivanishvili's government," they said.

Gvaramia claimed that Khalvashi can not annul his contract with Rustavi2, and also that there remain avenues to appeal at least part of the ECHR decision. He insisted that the immediate transfer of ownership to Khalvashi would be illegal, but the same day as the ECHR ruling, Georgia's Public Registry had already registered Khalvashi as the station's legal owner.

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