Georgia: Will Regulators Turn Off Rustavi2?
Left in legal limbo, Georgia’s largest private national broadcaster, the pro-opposition Rustavi2, could be tiptoeing toward a "suspension” of its broadcasts, a statement from the country’s national communications commission hinted on November 9.
In the commission’s telling, the question mark over the identity of Rustavi2’s legally authorized managers “creates a real threat” for the " suspension of its broadcasting functions,” if no duly empowered representative exists to meet regulatory and contractual commitments. The statement makes no explicit mention of revoking Rustavi2’s license.
A November-3 court ruling specified that the station, strongly sympathetic to the government's best known critic, ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili, be turned over to a former owner, Kibar Khalvashi. Two days later, despite a higher-court ruling that no ownership changes could occur while appeals were pending, the Tbilisi City Court removed Rustavi2’s general director, Nika Gvaramia, and appointed two “temporary managers” -- former owner Davit Dvali and TV executive Remaz Sakevarishvili -- to oversee the station's handover.
This last decision sparked sharp statements of concern about media-rights from Georgia's closest Western allies, the European Union and the US. On November 11, the Constitutional Court, Georgia’s highest judiciary body, will begin reviewing the grounds for the Tbilisi City Court’s appointment of the two interim managers.
Dvali and Sakevarishvili -- like Khalvashi, slammed by Rustavi2 supporters as government stooges -- have not yet entered the station's premises. This weekend, Rustavi2's heretofore majority shareholders, Giorgi and Levan Karamanishvili, rejected the pair's offer to grant power of attorney to "any" mutally acceptable individual while the ownership-decision is being appealed.
Meanwhile, the station is still broadcasting, but, apparently, also planning for the future. Reports in Georgian media indicate that the option of creating a new TV station already is on the table.
In November-9 comments to Netgazeti.ge, Rustavi2 news anchor Zaal Udumashvili, who also doubles as the station’s deputy general director, stated that setting up a new station remains, for now, an option “at the theoretical level” — something to consider if “extreme measures will be taken and we will have to leave television.”
As the Georgian National Communications Commission (GNCC) sees it, however, no changes have occurred in Rustavi2’s editorial policies since the November 3 ownership ruling, and“interference by state institutions in editorial policy did not occur . . . “
For a government on the defensive about media rights, that may be a pleasing finding, but Finance Minister Nodar Khaduri stressed to reporters on November 10 that the commission “is not subject to the government” and “is independent.”
The GNCC’s five members were selected in 2014 by parliament, where the ruling Georgian Dream coalition holds the majority.
The Georgian Dream's founder, ex-Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, often depicted as the government’s grey cardinal, has not hid his dislike of Rustavi2, but, again, on November 10, came out swinging at the notion that the station's handover to Khalvashi is at the government's behest.
“The situation that’s been created is not favorable for the government," he told reporters in reference to the aspersions now being cast on Tbilisi's respect for freedom of media. "This is favorable precisely for [Saakashvili's] National Movement."