On July 18, 2019 the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled to return the ownership of the country’s largest pro-opposition TV channel Rustavi 2 to Kibar Khalvashi. Mr Khalvashi is the previous owner, who is closely aligned with the ruling Georgian Dream Party. The Court’s decision has a big impact on media environment in Georgia.
A legal battle over Rustavi 2 has been a subject for discussions over the last few years. In 2017, the TV channel lost a battle to the Supreme Court of Georgia. Almost immediately, the ECHR temporarily suspended the ruling and warned state officials not to intervene in the channel’s editorial policy. Several prominent CSOs expressed their concerns about the Supreme Court’s proceedings and independence.
The TV channel brought a number of complaints to the ECHR concerning the right to fair trial, freedom of expression and ownership. The Court now concluded that fair trial was guaranteed. Regarding the ownership issues, as declared in official press release, the Court found that “A person or company could not complain of a violation of the Convention in proceedings to which he or she had not been a party. Rustavi 2 was the object rather than the subject of the ownership dispute and it could not therefore claim to possess an interest”. The Court also declared inadmissible the complaints about the violation of the freedom of expression. ECHR ruled to enforce the Supreme Court’s decision of March 2017, which granted the ownership of Rustavi 2 to its former owner.
The Court’s injunction raised huge concerns among CSOs and journalists. CSOs issued a joint Statement concerning the case of Rustavi 2. They noted that ECHR’s ruling represents a significant challenge for democracy and media environment. CSOs also warned about possible interference in editorial independence of Rustavi 2 journalists: “In light of the current reality in Georgia, it is essential for Rustavi 2’s new owner and management to ensure the editorial independence of the journalists and allow them to make decisions according to their own conscience. Moreover, effective mechanisms should be introduced to ensure that employees’ labor rights are duly protected.” Georgia is currently ranked 60th out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index 2019 by Reporters Without Borders. However, due to the on-going pressure on key media outlets, it is essential to constantly monitor the media environment and on-going developments around Rustavi 2. Georgian CSOs expressed their readiness to provide further assistance in the process.