Media freedom threatened in Georgia
In what many are calling a blow for freedom of speech, Georgia's top court has decided to return ownership of one of the country's most popular television stations to a politically-connected businessman. In a highly controversial decision which led to accusations that the government was interfering with the independence of the media, on 2nd March 2017, the Supreme Court of Georgia delivered its verdict on the ownership rights to Rustavi2 - the highly popular opposition TV channel in Georgia. The Court's final decision was unanimous and granted Kibar Khalvashi, the previous owner of the station, 60 percent of the TV company's shares, while his company, Panorama Ltd, received 40 percent of the shares. Khalvashi has close ties to the Georgian Dream Party and to former Prime Minister, Bidzina Ivanivshili, a billionaire who has been implicated in the Panama Papers.
On 3rd March 2017, opposition political parties and representatives from 29 civil society organisations appealed to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) on the Rustavi2 case, requesting an interim measure to suspend the Supreme Court’s decision. Civil society expressed its concerns over the independence and impartiality of the Supreme Court judges as well as the political motivation for granting ownership to an individual close to a political party and Ivanivshili. The ECHR considered the petition and temporarily suspended the decision through 8th March 2017, when the Court then decided to prolong the suspension and begin hearings on the case, which could take more than a month.
The Supreme Court decision was made after the EU adopted a visa free regime for Georgia in recognition of the country's commitment to the European integration processes and the promotion of universal values, such as freedom of expression. In addition to Georgian civil society organisations, several embassies and international organisations, such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have also shared their concern over this case and warned Georgian authorities about the possible consequences for press freedom.
On 22nd January 2017, approximately 300 Georgians marched in the capital, Tbilisi, to raise awareness of women's rights and other civil rights issues. The demonstration coincided with women's marches taking place throughout the world following the inauguration of U.S. president, Donald Trump. The march took place without incident, and one of the organisers, Maggie Osdoby, described the gathering as such:
“We are an informal non-partisan grassroots gathering of people who believe in equality, diversity, inclusion and justice for everyone. We come together in order to support women’s rights everywhere and to stand against the politics of fear, division, and misogyny."
Following the above-mentioned Supreme Court's decision on Rustavi2 TV, thousands of people gathered in front of the Supreme Court to protest against the decision and show support for maintaining the independence and impartiality of the only opposition television station in the country. Several opposition political parties formed a coalition and joined the protests, while other opposition members said they will not accept the court's decision. Protests took place throughout the month of February, with large number of citizens gathering in support of maintaining the TV channel's independence from state and party control. There were no reports of disruptions or violence at the demonstrations.