Amid concern about the future of media pluralism in Georgia after a former owner regained control of opposition TV channel Rustavi 2 last week, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls for the editorial independence of the TV channel’s staff to be respected and for media owners and political parties to have much less influence over the leading media.
In the latest episode in a battle that has dragged on for years, the European Court of Human Rights decided on 18 July to reject appeals against the transfer of Rustavi 2’s ownership to one of its former owners, businessman Kibar Khalvashi. The ruling meant that the transfer, approved by Georgia’s supreme court in 2017, took immediate effect.
Aside from continuing controversy of Rustavi 2’s ownership, it is the potential consequences of the ownership change that is causing concern in Georgia. Rustavi 2 is both the country’s most popular TV channel and, until now, the political opposition’s main mouthpiece.
As media owners usually determine editorial policy in Georgia, Rustavi 2’s staff fear that Khalvashi will impose a pro-government policy, dealing a major blow to broadcast pluralism in a country where Rustavi 2 is the exception in a broadcast media landscape otherwise dominated by pro-government channels.
Khalvashi has promised not to intervene in Rustavi 2’s editorial policies and to fire no-one except its executive director, Nika Gvaramia. But he has rejected staff requests to confirm this commitment in writing, to create an independent supervisory council and to extend all personnel contracts by two years. Rustavi 2’s journalists are also concerned about his claims that he found the channel to be in worse financial shape than he expected.
“Rustavi 2’s editorial independence and economic survival must be guaranteed,” said Johann Bihr, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk. “In the run-up to the 2020 parliamentary elections, it is essential to preserve the Georgian media landscape’s pluralism and to reduce the influence that media owners and political parties exercise over editorial policies.”
Rustavi 2 has passed from hand to hand since its creation in 1994 and successive governments have often tried to control it. Khalvashi gained control of it in 2004 in disputed circumstances, and sold it again two years later under pressure, he claimed, from then President Mikheil Saakashvili’s government. Thereafter, it supported Saakashvili’s party, the United National Movement, now in opposition.
Ever since last week’s ruling in Khalvashi’s favour, a former defence minister and two of the TV channel’s original founders have been claiming to be the real owners.
Georgian law bans political parties from directly owning media outlets but the leading TV channels usually defend their owners’ business and political interests. Georgia is ranked 60th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2019 World Press Freedom Index.