More than a quarter-century after Georgia gained its independence from the Soviet Union, civil-society advocates there are still fighting for the kind of press freedoms enjoyed by residents of the EU and NATO nations.
On Tuesday, they claimed a small victory when Europe’s top human-rights court confirmed its suspension of an effort by authorities in Tbilisi to place Rustavi2, Georgia’s largest independent television station, under control of the station’s former co-owner, businessman Kibar Khalvashi, who is seen as a close ally of the government.
The European Court of Human Rights first stepped into the case last week, blocking a ruling by Georgia’s Supreme Court that would have given Khalvashi control of Rustavi2, which is Georgia’s most-watched channel and also happens to be the only strong media voice in the country that is critical of the government.
‘Europe saved Georgia!’
Rustavi2’s director-general, Nika Gvaramia, hailed Tuesday’s European court ruling in Strasbourg, which extended last week’s decision until further notice. “Europe saved us today,” he said in a televised statement. “Europe saved Georgia today!”
If Khalvashi were to regain control of the station, his opponents fear he would silence its independent voice.
The ownership dispute started shortly after parliamentary elections in 2012, which former President Mikhail Saakashvili’s United National Movement lost to the Georgian Dream coalition, led by Bidzina Ivanishvil, a billionaire who made his fortune in Russia. Khalvashi is a strong supporter of the ruling Georgian Dream party.
Amid an intense Russian propaganda campaign of fake news and disinformation, Georgia’s current government contends it has no political motives, and is merely trying to resolve infighting between Rustavi2’s current and former owners.
Media turmoil ‘looks bad’
Either way, Georgia’s media turmoil “looks bad,” Edward Lucas, senior editor of The Economist weekly, told VOA via email from London.
“The legal position may be complicated, but the government should be doing everything to make sure that the broadcast media are pluralistic,” he said. Otherwise, he added, the government looks as if it is “engaged in a power-grab” of Georgia’s media.
Tamar Abazadze of Georgia’s Young Lawyers Association told VOA that Georgia, as a member of the Council of Europe, is obliged to implement decisions by the European Court of Human Rights, under Article 46 of European Convention on Human Rights.
Other media cutbacks
Meanwhile, new management at Georgian Public Broadcaster has announced it plans to suspend more than 100 television and radio shows by July, fueling concerns the broadcaster will be largely silenced ahead of next year’s presidential elections.
Those cutbacks follow Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili’s proposal on Monday to create a Media Ombudsman’s Office tasked with monitoring the media environment in Georgia. The initiative has been largely panned by civil society activists, who call it nothing more than a ploy to turn media outlets into government mouthpieces.
Nino Danelia, professor of mass communications at Ilia State University, suggests an office of media ombudsman is an effort by the government to influence international observers who have voiced concerns about state of Georgian media.
“The main problem Georgian media is facing today is the government itself,” she told VOA. “No state appointed ombudsman can prevent problems the government is creating itself.”
Warning from Freedom House
In 2015, U.S.-based media watchdog Freedom House called on Georgia to “end its interference with the media.”
“For a country like Georgia that has struggled very hard and got where it is now in its democratic evolution, this is a serious setback,” Robert Herman, the group’s vice president, told VOA. “The research Freedom House and others have done show that when there are infringements upon the media sector, they often end up as precursors of a deeper and broader backslide, as well as erosion of democratic norms and practices.”
Television is the main source of the information for 77 percent of Georgia’s 4 million citizens, according to National Democratic Institute’s public attitudes research. Only 14 percent of Georgians depend on the internet for news, the group said.
This report was produced in collaboration with VOA’s Georgian Service. Some information is from Radio Free Europe.