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Georgian Government Accused of Sabotaging Independent TV Station

For years the independent television Station Rustavi 2 in Georgia has been the beacon for free speech in Georgia. But in alarming new developments it has come under unprecedented attack. The ruling coalition “Georgian Dream” which is manipulated and led from the shadows by the billionaire former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili is trying to crush Rustavi 2 by a two-pronged stealth campaign. There are fears now that the Government may force a change of editorial policy, or even close down the station altogether.

Rustavi 2 is recognised as one of the most dynamic independent TV Stations in the Region

The first element of the Government campaign is to eliminate the channel’s source of revenues by changing the laws on TV advertising. Rustavi 2 is unusual in the Georgian TV market, because it has always enjoyed a healthy cash flow and revenue from advertising. Other national TV stations tend to rely on generous patronage from their owners to subsidise their operations. This dramatic change in legislation has seen many other stations withdraw their political talk shows and public affairs programmes in mysterious circumstances.

Although Georgia is a dynamic and flourishing economy, with a healthy uptake of digital communications, Georgian Society still relies very heavily on television as a source of local news. Rustavi 2 has always maintained an open editorial policy which has enabled political talk shows to flourish and for NGOs to voice their opinions as a public arena where the voices of opposition and critics of the Georgian Dream party can freely debate their views.

It is this editorial policy of encouraging debate and a platform for constructive criticism that has brought the Rustavi 2 channel into conflict with the Government.

The second line of stealth attack against Rustavi 2 is being pressed by the Government through the courts in Tbilisi to seize control of a majority shareholding in the company though a spurious suit. The plaintiff is one of its former owners Kibar Khalvashi, a businessman who was a Rustavi 2 TV shareholder in 2004-2006. He has asked the court to freeze the broadcaster’s assets pending the court’s final verdict over the ownership of shares in the station.

I spoke with Giorgi Targamadze, the leader of the Christian Democrat Movement of Georgia, about his concerns. “Georgia is a developing democracy, and what happens here has implications for the whole region,” he said.

“In the run up to next year’s Parliamentary elections, it is absolutely vital that all parties should be able to reach their voters through the medium of television. There is a multitude of small political parties in this country, and if the ruling government coalition suppresses free speech, then none of the opposition parties will have any chance in the elections.”

Targamadze knows all too well what can happen when government forces closure of a TV station, as he was the Political Director of the TV station Imedi that was brutally raided and shut down in 2007.

“It is crucial for maintaining Georgia’s pro-Western line that we protect the freedom of the media here,” says Giorgi Targamadze.

Tom Weingartner the President of the Association of International Journalists (API) supports this. “The freedom of the media is constantly coming under attack. It is vitally important in any democracy that there are a range of different voices free to express their views without fear of coercion of any sort and without political or state intervention, ” he told me.

A court decision on the ownership of Rustavi 2 is expected this week. But in a Kafka-esque twist the presiding judge has found that his mother is under investigation for allegedly attacking her son in law (the husband of the judge’s sister, with an axe). Whilst the judge insists that this investigation will not influence his decision in the Rustavi 2 case, informed political commentators in Tbilisi have expressed reservations about the potential impact of this parallel court case on his impartiality.

The US State Department and the EU Mission in Tbilisi are watching developments closely.

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