UARU
Georgia Is Under Fire For Media Takeover
6 March, 2017
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What You Need To Know:

The Georgian Supreme Court has ruled to return the popular independent TV channel, Rustavi 2, to its former co-owner.
This ruling has sparked protests in
Tblisi.
This dispute has also “raised concerns of the right of freedom of expression in Georgia, and could indeed jeopardise media pluralism in the country”.
The European Court of Human Rights has placed ‘interim measures’ on the Supreme Court’s decision.

The ruling of the Supreme Court has raised concerns with Georgian civil society that the rulings were ‘politically motivated’. Levan Astiani, Regional Campaigner on Eurasia at Amnesty International, states that one of main factors behind this belief is the fact that ‘high officials from the Georgian government have, in the past, openly expressed support in favour of the former shareholder- the shareholder who actually brought the lawsuit’.

The European Court of Human Rights has recently ‘urged the Georgian government to actually not execute the judgement of the Supreme Court of Georgia until the European Court of Human Rights has the time to look into the case. The European Court does not often resort to this type of interim measures.’

Hromadske’s guest host Maxim Eristavi spoke to the Amnesty International Regional Campaigner on Eurasia Levan Asatiani via Skype on March, 5th.

Thanks for joining us and helping us to explain and get a clearer idea of what has been happening in Georgia over this past week. I’m going to start by pointing out the statement from 21 NGOs that was released a couple of days ago. It has a very strong signal of condemnation of what happened with Rustavi 2 and the takeover following the Supreme Court decision, and it says, basically that all those organisations and non-governmental people, they think that decision damages not only the further democratic development of Georgia, but it also limits its freedom of media, pluralistic media environment and threatens the Euro-Atlantic integration process. I want to start by hearing your assessment on whether or not you agree with the civil society in Georgia, with that kind of harsh statement on the Rustavi 2 takeover. 

I think the whole dispute over the ownership of the Rustavi 2 channel does indeed raise concerns of the right of freedom of expression in Georgia, and could indeed jeopardise media pluralism in the country. Now, I think we can all agree that we should hold Georgia accountable to the very high standards largely because this country is the island within the region, where actually, freedom of speech and freedom of expression and media pluralism has more or less been respected. And I believe that the concerns that civil society has in Georgia, that this whole lawsuit against Rustavi 2 has been politically motivated is rather credible. There are three main factors that lead to this assessment. Now the the first is that high officials from the Georgian government have, in the past, openly expressed support in favour of the former shareholder- the shareholder who actually brought the lawsuit. The shareholder himself has openly endorsed the current government’s policies on many issues. The second issue is that the Georgian NGOs that were monitoring the trials and the developments, the court hearings and the developments around the case, have said that the lower instance courts lacked clear and consistent legal argumentation in their decisions, and there were also some procedural violations. And thirdly, in 2016 as the case was still ongoing in the courts, threats were made against the current executive director of Rustavi 2, and as he claimed, these were the threats by the security services of Georgia blackmailing him with release of covertly filmed videos.

Levan, there is no doubt that there is a lack of transparency for the whole process. Look, what strikes me the most in this case is that both sides, both civil society and international allies, regarding the situation in Georgia, regarding the fact that- as you rightly pointed out, that it is a poster example for the post-Soviet world- this is tied to the process of European integration. The balance is a very tricky one because, at one point, you see the statements from civil society saying that there’s a lack of transparency, that the decision is not of a high quality, but on the other hand, you have statements from the US Embassy and EU mission saying that the most important thing at this point is not to damage the credibility of the justice system in Georgia, and not to undermine it. How do you balance those two important things? 

Well, I think largely because of the lack of transparency, and because of the concerns that were made by the civil society, these concerns actually seem quite credible. To a certain degree, the image of the judiciary in Georgia has been damaged unfortunately, and this has been further reinforced by the very recent decision of the European Court of Human Rights, which actually decided to endorse the interim measures on the case of Rustavi 2, and urged the Georgian government to actually not execute the judgement of the Supreme Court of Georgia until the European Court of Human Rights has the time to look into the case. The European Court does not often resort to this type of interim measures. This means that the Court could have some preliminary doubts on how the case was dealt with in Georgia. And in the long-term and in the short-term that will damage the credibility of the judiciary in the country. And this is why it is extremely important now that the Georgian government does everything possible to ensure that the legal dispute- that is still ongoing because the Constitutional Court of Georgia should also look into this now, as well as the European Court of Human Rights- that these legal disputes continue without any type of political pressure, or any type of external influences whatsoever. 

So is this the way out, in your opinion, from this whole mess? Just making sure that the transition, whatever it is, whether it be to the former owner or to the team of journalists, is transparent and is aligned with the law? Or what other creative solutions could there be to this deadlock situation?

I think yes, the most important thing is that the authorities in Georgia should ensure that this concern, that this dispute is dealt with as a legal dispute, without any type of external or political pressures. And therefore, they should create an environment in which it would be hard to perceive that there is some kind of political pressure on the judges, or some types of statements made by the government officials that could actually be considered statements encouraging a particular side of the dispute. In addition, they must investigate the alleged threats that were made against the management of Rustavi 2 in 2016 when the case was ongoing, and by effectively investigating those threats, they could actually prove that they are willing to create an environment in which the judiciary can be independent, impartial and actually make an independent and impartial judgement on this very tricky case.