The temporary managers controversially appointed to run Georgia’s largest private broadcaster, the pro-opposition Rustavi2, may prove to be just that — temporary. Citing a leadership “vacuum” at the station, a collegium of judges from the Tbilisi City Court on November 12 reinstated Rustavi2’s former manager, Nika Gvaramia, and removed one of the two temporary managers.
On November 3, Rustavi2's majority owners, sympathetic to the government's main political foe, ex-Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, lost control of the broadcaster after Tbilisi City Court Judge Tamaz Urtmelidze awarded it to a former owner, Kibar Khalvashi.
Georgia's highest judicial body, the Constitutional Court earlier had ruled that no changes should occur until the case had gone through appeal. Judge Urtmelidze's November-5 decision to install, nonetheless, two managers to oversee the ownership-change appeared to defy that ruling, critics alleged.
Yet the 28-member collegium’s decision is not a complete reversal of his ruling, however. Though it ditched former Rustavi2 owner Davit Dvali as a temporary manager, it left in place Revaz Sakevarishvili, a former TV executive at the pro-government national broadcaster Imedi.
Reasons for that exception were not given. No mention was made of Rustavi2’s former financial director, Kakha Damenia, who also lost his job under Judge Urtmelidze's November-5 ruling.
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.
In a new, dramatic twist in the standoff over Georgia’s leading national TV broadcaster Rustavi2, the Tbilisi City Court has dismissed the current management of the channel. Critics term the decision a contravention of the Constitutional Court’s earlier order that no ownership-changeover could take place until the case had gone through the appeals process.
Under the November-5 order, the station, the most prominent source of media-criticism of the government, will be transferred to the temporary care of managers and executives appointed by businessman Kibar Khalvashi, who, three days ago, regained full ownership of the channel. Since that ruling is under appeal, he himself cannot yet take control of the station.
The managers designated by the Tbilisi City Court to act in his stead are another former Rustavi2 owner, Davit Dvali, and Remaz Sakevarishvili, a former director of the privately owned national broadcaster Imedi.
At a late-night rally on November 5, Rustavi2 General Director Nika Gvaramia, flanked by his news crew, said he will not obey the court order to step down. The station accuses the government, led by the Georgian Dream coalition, and the coalition’s founder, ex-Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, of trying to seize the channel and squash its critical coverage of government policies.
The order has been vocally challenged by Rustavi2’s lawyers and supporters, and prompted strong statements of concern from the US embassy and EU Ambassador Janos Herman.
In a controversial ruling,Tbilisi City Court Judge Tamaz Urtmelidze ruled on November 3 to restore the ownership rights of former co-owner Kibar Khalvashi to Rustavi2, Georgia's main broadcasting outlet.
Rustavi2's counsel, Zaza Bibilashvili, told the TV station he plans to appeal the decision.
The lawsuit has been at the center of a months-long struggle that has accerbated a bitter political crisis between the ruling Georgian Dream and former President Mikheil Saakashvili's United National Movement, which claims that the lawsuit serves as a government-takeover. Khalvashi maintains that he only wantes to restore the rights he supposedly illegally lost during Saakashvili's first, 2004-2008 term in office.
Georgia’s top opposition-minded channel, the influential Rustavi2, claims that an October 1 court ruling that freezes a majority shareholder’s stake in the company will lead to the television station’s closure.
“Today we are as close to ceasing broadcasts as ever,” Rustavi2 Director Nika Gvaramia said at a news conference. “All sources of financing have been shut down,” he said.
A fierce critic of the ruling Georgian Dream Coalition and supportive of the opposition United National Movement, Rustavi2, the country's largest private TV station, has been bogged down in a property dispute with a former shareholder, Kibar Khalvashi, for some time. The dispute led the Tbilisi City Court first to freeze Rustavi2’s assets and, now, the 51-percent stake held in Rustavi2 by the channel’s majority shareholder company, Sakartvelo.
The freeze interrupted the sale of the company to a new owner, who, Gvaramia claimed, was planning to invest $6 million in the national broadcaster.
That new owner, Dimitri Chikovani, is the brother-in-law of ex-Defense Minister Davit Kezerashvili, a Saakashvili-era cabinet minister who was granted political asylum in France after being prosecuted by the Georgian government on various criminal charges.
That is one of the few things about which Georgians can agree as they try to make sense of the mysterious gunshot to the head believed to have killed Kitsmarishvili, a co-founder of Georgia’s influential national broadcaster Rustavi2 and the supposed media-mind behind the 2003 Rose Revolution.
But the accuracy of the widespread supposition that suicide had nothing to do with this controversial businessman’s July-15 death could become increasingly sensitive — both for the Georgian government’s claims that, with an EU Association Agreement in its pocket, it can conduct impartial, fact-based investigations, and for the scandal-weary public’s trust in elected officials.
Investigators have filed a criminal case related to suicide, but claim that they are considering suicide as only one of the probable causes of death.
Shortly after a telephone call with a friend, Kitsmarishvili was found dead yesterday afternoon in his car, parked in the underground garage of his apartment building in an elite Tbilisi neighborhood. The prosecutor’s office has announced that a firearm found in the vehicle, and allegedly registered in Kitsmarishvili’s name that same day, “probably” fired the shot that killed him.
Billionaire Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili laid aside the cares of office the other day and invited a select group of TV journalists to his Star-Wars-style residence to tell them that, well, they're no good at what they do.
Ivanishvili, whose speaking style combines the no-nonsense talk of Russian oligarchs from the 1990s with the call-‘em-as-you-see-‘em lexicon of a small-town Georgian man, recently decided to provide free lessons for professionals in various fields. Last week, he spent four hours wagging his finger at a group of policy and economy wonks for getting it all wrong. On October 2, it was the turn of news anchors and producers to get a journalism 101 lesson from him.
Getting in touch with his inner newsman, Ivanishvili pontificated on what journalism is all about and what his irritated guests should really be doing out there. These days “journalists forget about their mission, about their own responsibilities,” the prime minister said regretfully, informing his guests that they are covering the wrong topics, interviewing the wrong people and citing the wrong data.
Referring to a printout (as with the experts), he demanded explanations for the journalists' on-the-air quotes. The constant criticism of the government distracts his team from doing the great job that they do, though it may not always visible, he asserted.
He faulted the group for failing to see all the “wonderful” achievements of his government in the economy field, which in all honesty, with a mere 1.6-percent growth rate so far for 2013 and an official 15-percent unemployment rate, could indeed escape the naked eye.
Anyone out there interested in buying a troubled television station for a third of its market value? Well, the family of Georgia’s Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili has one to sell. The channel comes with state-of-the-art equipment and has a successful record as a political campaign tool. The prime minister may be willing to throw in a news agency, too, as a lagniappe.
The signal for Tbilisi-based TV9 went static on August 19 after barely a year and a half on the air. Ivanishvili went through fire and water last year to create the national channel, owned by his wife, Ekaterine Kvedelidze, and Kakha Kobiashvili, a relative of Ivanishvili.
The station was intended to insert a dose of criticism into the airwaves then dominated by broadcasts friendly toward President Mikheil Saakashvili. The news channel may have helped bring Ivanishvili and his Georgian Dream coalition to power, but has since become a money pit and source of awkwardness for the prime minister.
“I have always believed and I still believe today that national leaders should not own television stations,” Ivanishvili said, Netgazeti.ge reported. “As I said many times before, it puts me personally and my family in an awkward situation."
After the 2012 parliamentary elections brought the Georgian Dream to power, the prime minister's family "wanted to sell TV9 and Info9 news agency, but out of responsibility and respect for journalists and other employees we extended its operations for 10 more months.”
But enough is enough. Ivanishvili, who has pledged to leave his post by the end of the year, said he can’t continue spending a million dollars a month to keep the station alive.
He may have retired from the American airwaves, but within the ex-USSR, former CNN star Larry King remains a hot commodity. King's decision to sign on with Russia Today, the Kremlin’s English-language TV mouthpiece, has caused jaws to drop, but the coverage mostly misses one side to the story that adds to the irony.
Russia Today is not Larry's first post-CNN gig in the post-Soviet world -- there also was a short stint on the advisory board of a TV station in Georgia, Russia's longtime foe.
King could not be reached for comment, but, according to one TV9 statement, his passion about freedom of media motivated his Georgia move. “I hope to lend my voice to the cause of media freedom in Georgia,” King was quoted as saying.
Armenia and Georgia, neighbors that compete over just about anything, from cuisine to culture, now seem to be going head to head over press freedom. Key media-freedom watchdogs seem to diverge about which of the two countries should take the lead in the South Caucasus.
For years, Georgia has carried the torch for media freedom in the region, a place that is hardly a bulwark of independent or high-quality media to begin with. But, according to the latest press freedom charts by the Paris-based Reporters without Borders, Armenia has taken over the baton.
The country was placed 77th in a ranking of 179 countries, 33 notches above Georgia, and way ahead of neighbors Turkey, Azerbaijan and Iran.
Reporters without Borders wrote that both Armenia and Georgia “enjoy broad media pluralism and a low level of state censorship, but they still face important challenges concerning media independence and the working environment of journalists" who are "often treated as easy prey by a variety of pressure groups."