Rustavi 2 TV Calls on Viewers to Rally in ‘Defense of Media Freedom’

Head of Rustavi 2 TV, Nika Gvaramia, has called on viewers through a live televised address to rally outside the broadcaster’s headquarters on Thursday, when the Tbilisi City Court continues hearing of a lawsuit filed by Rustavi 2’s former co-owner, Kibar Khalvashi, who tries to reclaim his shares in the television channel.

Gvaramia, who made the address during Rustavi 2 TV’s main news program late on Wednesday evening, accused judge Tamaz Urtmelidze, who adjudicates the ongoing ownership dispute, of “depriving us the right to fair trial.”

He accused the judge of being “hired” by the government in order to rule in favor of Khalvashi’s lawsuit and to change the broadcaster’s ownership for the purpose of silencing the opposition-minded TV channel. Gvaramia also blamed the judge of “hasty” proceeding, not giving Rustavi 2 TV’s legal team enough time to prepare its arguments.

“We call on each and every citizen of Georgia for whom freedom of media and freedom of speech is important… to stand in defense of Rustavi 2, which is the only media outlet [in Georgia] independent from the government control,” Gvaramia said.

“Stand beside us tomorrow from 1pm because… it is actually guaranteed that judge [Tamaz] Urtmelidze will deliver illegal verdict and there is also a risk that it will be followed by an order on an immediate enforcement of the verdict and we will see in our [Rustavi 2 TV’s] yard special purposes forces,” Gvaramia said, claiming that the riot police were already on high alert, ready to enforce orders “target of which is Rustavi 2.”

Shortly after his address, the Interior Ministry released a statement denying Gvaramia’s claims as “utterly false and deliberate disinformation.”

“Gvaramia’s televised address aims at misleading public and escalating tensions,” the Interior Ministry said. “We call on all the stakeholders to refrain from disseminating groundless and unverified information.”

Gvaramia made his televised address few hours after the court hearing into Rustavi 2 TV ownership dispute, which is in its final phase, was adjourned until Thursday morning.

At a court hearing on October 28 a report on valuation of Rustavi 2 TV shares in 2005-2006 was examined, including through questioning of an expert, who compiled the report. Through this report, which was submitted as a piece of evidence by the plaintiff, Khalvashi tries to show that the price for which he had to sell his shares were in fact far lower than actual value of the assets. Khalvashi, who co-owned Rustavi 2 in 2004-2006, claims in his lawsuit that he was coerced into selling the broadcaster in 2006 by then leadership of the country.

The valuation, commissioned by the plaintiff, was done by an expert from the Georgian state forensics bureau, Shota Ivanashvili, based on an inconclusive financial data provided by the plaintiff. The expert told the court that the valuation was done through asset-based approach as it was more relevant in the condition of scarce financial data. The expert, who compiled the report in September in less than two days, also said that he had not verified authenticity of the provided data as it was not within his competence.

After almost three-hour long questioning of the expert, lawyers representing Rustavi 2 TV and its current owners sought in vain excluding the report as invalid evidence on the grounds that it was based on dubious and inconclusive financial data; the respondents also argued that the report was not compiled based on the international valuation standards. The motion was rejected.

At the hearing on October 28, Rustavi 2 TV lawyers again wanted to recuse the judge Tamaz Urtmelidze accusing him of bias in favor of the plaintiff. The judge told respondents that their multiple efforts to recuse him “seem to be an attempt to discredit the judiciary.”

The hearing will continue on October 29 during which the Rustavi 2 TV lawyers will have to present their oral arguments against plaintiff’s lawsuit.

In his televised address, calling for a rally, Gvaramia, who held senior government posts in ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili’s administration, also told the viewers: “Do not support us; support yourself and the future of your children… The future of the country will be decided in coming days… We ask for help to every citizen, who have sense of responsibility, including those who for various reasons dislike Rustavi 2, because it’s not about Rustavi 2, it’s about the future of the country.”

“Court is deaf and blind for us; we have no judge; our case is being adjudicated by a [government]-hired [person], who will definitely be brought to justice and will be held responsible for all of his actions,” Gvaramia said.

He reiterated that “we will not obey” if the judge rules in favor of the plaintiff and if the ruling is accompanied by the order on an immediate enforcement of the decision.