Given the upcoming Parliamentary elections, this issue is becoming more and more important as the international community and non-governmental organisations, including local ones, directly hint at the risks of a pluralistic media environment and the quality of Georgian democracy.
All of this started a year ago when the former owner of the broadcasting company, Kibar Khalvashi, filed a complaint in the court, demanding the restoration of his property rights to Rustavi 2. Despite the fact that the involved parties and neutral observers state that the struggle for the control of the company had started, with varied intensity, before, as a starting point we can still take the date when Mr Khalvashi filed his complaint to the court – 4 August 2015.
FactCheck has been monitoring the events unfolding around the broadcasting company ever since and in this article offers a summary of the key events.
Timeline of Events
On 4 August 2015, businessman Kibar Khalvashi addressed the court, demanding the restoration of his property rights to the Rustavi 2 broadcasting company and, as a means of ensuring the claim, asked the court to seize the shares of Rustavi 2’s partners. Mr Khalvashi’s lawyers stated that back in 2006, he (Khalvashi) “was forced to give up his share in the broadcasting company as a result of pressure from high-ranking government officials, including Mikheil Saakashvili.”
On 5 August 2015, the court issued a ruling concerning Kibar Khalvashi’s complaint, fully seizing the shares of Rustavi 2’s owners and the properties of the company itself.
The court of first instance appropriated Rustavi 2 to Kibar Khalvashi.
The case continued in the Court of Appeals. The panel of three judges left the decision of the court of first instance in power.
Rustavi 2 addressed the Supreme Court with a cassation complaint; however, to date it is unknown whether or not the Supreme Court deems this case admissible. It is possible that this will finally be decided in the upcoming days.
Parallel to this, the Constitutional Court of Georgia is discussing the constitutionality of the single article upon which the decision of the Court of Appeals is based. It is important to note that the Chairman of the Constitutional Court of Georgia, Giorgi Papuashvili, has recently made a statement about the attempts to pressure the judges and there are some logical suspicions that the aforementioned attempts are connected to the Rustavi 2 case.
Violations during the Court Case
During the trials concerning the Rustavi 2 case, several facts and details have been outlined in the actions of the court that indicate its partiality:
- In the court of first instance, the Rustavi 2 case was considered by Judge Tamaz Urtmelidze who, according to the information of Tbilisi City Court, considers D type claims. Specifically, he is usually assigned uncontested cases, simple cases, cases concerning labour laws, cases concerning risks to the life and health of workers, those concerning the protection of individual non-property rights and intellectual rights cases.
- Despite the heightened public interest towards the case and its sophisticated nature, Judge Urtmelidze did not grant the motion of defence to transfer the case to the panel of three judges. He, despite the category of the case in question and in the tense environment, considered the case on his own within a limited timeframe and took full responsibility upon himself. In addition, the 5 November ruling by Judge Urtmelidze must be especially underscored which makes clear that he studied the legal practices of the United States of America in a highly limited timeframe based upon which, in a motion unprecedented within Georgian legal practices, he imposed an institute of temporary management.
- By the 5 August 2015 ruling of Tbilisi City Court based upon the complaint filed by businessman Kibar Khalvashi, the shares of the owners of Rustavi 2 and all properties of the company were fully seized. The functioning of the company was put under risk by this act and the need to attract additional finances arose. The holder of the 51% share of Rustavi 2, the Broadcasting Company Sakartvelo, decided to sell its share. On 29 September 2015, an agreement was signed between the partners of the Broadcasting Company Sakartvelo and businessman Dimitri Chikovani according to which Mr Chikovani would purchase a 100% share of the Broadcasting Company Sakartvelo and, in return for this, he would be obligated to invest several millions in Rustavi 2. On 30 September 2015, Kibar Khalvashi’s lawyer, Paata Salia, addressed the court with the demand to seize the properties of the Broadcasting Company Sakartvelo, claiming that a fictitious agreement was being struck in order to bankrupt Rustavi 2 and load it with financial obligations. The investment which was provided for by the agreement between Mr Chikovani and the Broadcasting Company Sakartvelo included the obligations to the purchasing party only and could not have been the basis for any complaints or demands from Mr Chikovani to Mr Khalvashi. Despite this, the demand of Mr Khalvashi’s lawyer was partially satisfied. Based upon the court ruling, the registration of the seizure of the properties of the partners of the Broadcasting Company Sakartvelo started just three hours after the complaint was filed (17:39 PM) which is an unprecedentedly short period of time.
- After the case went to the Court of Appeals, it became known that one of the judges from the panel specialised in cases concerning criminal law. The Court of Appeals has not yet explained how the judge specialising in criminal law ended up on the panel considering cases of a special difficulty.
- The Court of Appeals of Georgia mailed its decision to the parties of the dispute despite the fact that according to Article 259 of the Civil Procedure Code of Georgia, the party wishing to complain about the decision of the court (or its representative) is obligated to show up in the court no earlier than 20 days and no later than 30 days after the announcement of the argument based decision of the court and receive a copy of the court decision. The aforementioned action of mailing the order to the parties raised suspicions that by doing so the court sought to decrease the appeal time.
Logical Suspicions and Assessments
Based upon the facts listed above, the majority of lawyers believes that there is a number of violations in the legal process concerning the Rustavi 2 case such as the non-argument based actions and the coordinated actions of government structures and the court which hinder the proper functioning of the broadcasting company in question and directly concern the right of the company to just courts.
The management of Rustavi 2 as well as the majority of civil society groups and opposition parties assess the events unfolding around Rustavi 2 as pressure exercised by the government on the mass media and its attempt to seize the opposition TV channel.
The President of Georgia confirms that there are certain questions concerning the Rustavi 2 case. The Press Speaker of the President of Georgia, Eka Mishveladze, made a special statement on the issue on 19 July 2016: “The President hopes that the decision of the Supreme Court of Georgia will remove all the questions and doubts around the Rustavi 2 case.”
On 13 July 2016, six authoritative non-governmental organisations (International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy, Economic Policy Research Center, Civil Development Agency, Atlantic Council of Georgia and the Georgian Young Lawyers' Association) published a statement and called upon the Supreme Court of Georgia to deem the cassation complaint filed by Rustavi 2 admissible for further proceedings.
“Civil society is monitoring the ongoing court cases. We have made numerous statements about the violations observed during these cases, including the ones about the Court of Appeals decreasing the time for appeals and the non-argument based decision made by the court of first instance. Given the violations by the Court of Appeals and, especially, the ones made by the court of first instance, the suspicions about the possible political influences upon the legal proceedings have been reinforced which cause our grave concern. Given the upcoming Parliamentary elections, actions which could alter the editorial policy of the broadcasting company, which is highly critical towards the government, will harm the pluralistic media environment of the country as well as the quality of Georgian democracy,” reads the statement.
The Rustavi 2 case also ended up in the 2015 Report of the Public Defender of Georgia presented to the Parliament of Georgia. Ucha Nanuashvili states that the 5 August 2015 decision of the court curbed the property rights of Rustavi 2 as well violating its rights to freedom of speech and expression.
Representatives of the international community have also been talking about the Rustavi 2 case. The Ambassadors of both the United States of America as well as the European Union to Georgia note the political context of the case. International non-governmental organisations, such as Freedom House, call upon the Government of Georgia to uphold the principle of the rule of law.
It should also be pointed out that parallel to the aforementioned cases, the Constitutional Court of Georgia is discussing the constitutionality of the single article upon which the decision of the Court of Appeals is based. The Chairman of the Constitutional Court of Georgia, Giorgi Papuashvili, has recently made a statement about the attempts to pressure the judges of the Constitutional Court of Georgia.
FactCheck continues to monitor the events unfolding around Rustavi 2.