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Court in Georgia orders management change at independent broadcaster

Georgia Online
21:20 - 06 November '15

By Reuters

A court in Georgia has changed the management team in the country's biggest independent TV station Rustavi 2, days after it ordered a change of ownership.

Critics called the move an attempt to silence media freedom and hundreds of viewers and supporters of Rustavi 2 rallied outside the broadcaster's studio building on Thursday night in a gesture of support after the second ruling.

On Tuesday, the court had ordered a change of owner at Rustavi 2 and Kibar Khalvashi, co-owner for 2004 to 2006, got back his controlling stake in the highly popular station.

He said he had been coerced into selling Rustavi 2 by former government officials, including former President Mikheil Saakashvili.

Khalvashi could not take back his controlling stake in Rustavi 2 right away however, because of a ruling from Georgia's Constitutional Court which means verdicts are not being immediately enforced.

His lawyers therefore filed an injunction requesting permission to appoint his own management team at Rustavi 2 TV pending ongoing litigation over who owns the station.

The broadcaster's director general, who was replaced by the court, condemned the decision as illegal and said he would not obey the ruling.

"I am not going to leave this building, come and expel me by force," Nika Gvaramia said in a live televised address from Rustavi 2 headquarters after midnight on Thursday.

"We are not going to leave this TV channel voluntarily."

Khalvashi and his new managers said on Friday they were not going to change or interfere in the broadcaster's editorial policy.

But opposition politicians and many independent experts say the takeover is an attempt to silence independent media in the country of 3.7 million.

"This decision destroys the editorial independence of Rustavi 2, fundamentally undermines freedom of media, ruins the media pluralism in the country, and has implications for challenging Georgia's constitutional order and stability," nine civil society groups said in a joint statement on Friday.

"Maintaining Rustavi 2 as a critical TV channel is essential for Georgia's democracy, especially in light of the upcoming parliamentary election in 2016."

The U.S. ambassador to Georgia, Ian Kelly, has also voiced concern.

"Attempts to change the management of the station, in advance of the appeal process, have profound political implications. In a democratic society, critical opinions should be encouraged, not silenced," the ambassador said in a written statement.

A court ordered the seizure of Rustavi 2's property in August and later a seizure of shares in the company that owns Rustavi 2, which government officials have often accused of bias.

Government officials deny any involvement in this case.

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