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Georgia: Rustavi2 Claims Temporary Victory in Ownership Fight

The European Court of Human Rights on March 7 extended its freeze on a controversial court decision allowing an ownership change at Georgia’s largest private TV station, Rustavi2, that observers claimed would muffle media criticism of the government.
 
Neither officials nor Rustavi2’s would-be owner, Kibar Khalvashi, responded immediately to the decision, but Rustavi2’s general director, Nika Gvaramia, posted the ECHR notification on his Facebook page, announcing that “We’ve won!”
 
The decision is not a court ruling, but does prolong “until further notice” the ECHR’s March 3 request that Georgia suspend the ownership change pending a hearing of the Rustavi2 case by the Strasbourg-based court.
 
At the very least, the decision delayed a new chapter in Rustavi2’s chequered history.
 
Once a fierce critic of the late President Eduard Shevardnadze and a conduit for the 2003 Rose Revolution, Rustavi2 went on to become a government loyalist under President Mikheil Saakashvili, and then back to being a government detractor after Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream came to power in 2012.
 
Many Georgians see the station as biased toward the pro-Saakashvili opposition, with Khalvashi’s bid to retake Rustavi2 simply a cover for a takeover attempt by the government and Ivanishvili.
 
That belief motivates much of the defense of Rustavi2 – not necessarily out of sympathy for Saakashvili, but out of a belief that the station is the last influential check on the government’s power. “I am defending . . . Rustavi2 from both Ivanishvili and Saakashvili,” declared prominent Georgian playwright Lasha Bughadze, as he joined a Tbilisi rally to support the station on March 2, the day Georgia’s Supreme Court ruled in favor of Khalvashi.
 
The New-York-City-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch also weighed in to say that the case puts media freedom in Georgia at risk. “The entire process of contesting Rustavi2’s ownership threatens media freedom and judiciary independence [,] and demands further scrutiny,” advised Giorgi Gogia, HRW’s Caucasus director.
 
Officials deny all allegations of meddling.
 
As a way to defuse the squabble over whether the government wants to control the media, Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili has proposed a media ombudsman – an idea “welcomed” by US Ambassador Ian Kelly, who, at a March 6 media-advocacy meeting, had described Georgia as “the virtuous model for governments in this region.”
 
Energy Minister Kakha Kaladze also went on to extoll the idea in a Facebook-streamed video talk and suggested Polish dissident Adam Michnik for the job. “I am positive that the media ombudsman’s work will improve the quality of the media . . . as the more freedom there is, the more professionalism is required in every line of job,” he instructed.
 
The idea did not seem to allay current concerns among civil society and media about press freedom; especially as it comes from the government itself. 
 
For its part, the Georgian Dream argues that the court rulings which restored Rustavi2 to Khalvashi’s control only reverse wrongs which occurred under Saakashvili, when the station passed from hand to hand like a hot potato.
 
Two of the station’s three founders, Jarji Akimidze and Davit Dvali, contend that Saakashvili’s government forced them to sell their shares. The third founder, the late Erosi Kitsmarishvili, willingly went along with the offer, Dvali alleged in an interview on March 5.
 
In 2004, an obscure businessman bought Rustavi2 for one day, and then sold it to Khalvashi, a close friend of then Defense Minister Davit Okruashvili. After Okruashvili ran afoul of Saakashvili, Khalvashi sold the station -- he contends, under duress.
 
In the following years, many of the station’s key anchors and show hosts resigned, citing editorial pressure from the government.
 
Now the circle looks ready to turn again. Even after Khalvashi’s ownership was restored, he offered to share Rustavi2 with the two original owners, Dvali and Akimidze.
 
While appreciative of the offer, Dvali indicated on March 5 his doubts about the government’s role in the case, noting that prosecutors did not follow through on his own complaints about being robbed of the station.  
 
Meanwhile, in the latest twist, Rustavi2’s Gvaramia says that “persons who stand behind us” want to buy the station from Khalvashi on behalf of the staff, and protect its independence.
 
The proposed price? Reportedly, just under $4 million.
 

Georgia: Rustavi2 Claims Temporary Victory in Ownership Fight

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