A Play-by-Play of the Rustavi 2 Fight for Journalism

It’s hard to mark the start point for the Rustavi 2 case, as over the years it has been top news more than once. But let’s take a look at the most recent events of the current saga.

In October 2018, Bidzina Ivanishvili, Georgian businessman and ex-Prime Minister, who had returned as a Chairperson of the Georgian Dream political party in April, gave a controversial interview to TV Pirveli. While the Chairperson of the Georgian Dream explained later that his statements aimed to reveal the government’s plan to filter the lies told by media, many journalists received Ivanishvili’s words as a threat. “Everything and everyone in our society will be found out within a year… I also promise that Rustavi 2 will no longer be able to hold such a big part of our society hostage, refuse to listen to different points of view and generate lies and stress. We will do our best to have a differentiated opinion enter Rustavi 2,” he said.

It took less than a year, however, to completely reform Rustavi 2. In August 2019, Rustavi 2, at least as we knew it, has been removed from the Georgian media market.

On July 18, businessman Kibar Khalvashi was officially registered as the owner of Rustavi 2 TV. The data of the Public Registry shows that 60% of Rustavi 2 broadcasting company is owned by Khalvashi, while 40% is registered to the company Panorama, which is also owned by Khalvashi. Upon his arrival at Rustavi 2, Khalvashi stated that Gvaramia would soon be replaced by his lawyer, Paata Salia. On the same day, the European Court of Human Rights delivered a verdict in the Rustavi 2 ownership case claiming it could find no violations of any article of the European Convention on Human Rights. The Strasbourg Court also brought to a close the temporary measure which had suspended the judgment of the Supreme Court of Georgia with regards Rustavi 2’s true owners. Accordingly, the TV company was re-registered to shareholder Kibar Khalvashi, as had previously been decided by the courts of three instances in Georgia.

Soon after the TV Channel was re-registered to Khalvashi, he announced to the media:

“I’m not going to change the editorial policy of Rustavi 2. The changes will only apply to one person – Nika Gvaramia, who was appointed to his post by the regime which took my company from me [the ex-government],” Khalvashi said.

Simultaneously, an investigation against Nika Gvaramia was demanded by 9% shareholder of the TV Channel, Nino Nizharadze, and her lawyer. They reported that Gvaramia had abused his official authority and made decisions which were harmful to the TV channel.

On August 2, Nika Gvaramia was questioned at the Prosecutor’s Office. Kakha Damenia, former director of Rustavi 2, was called in the following day, the main theme of interest being income and advertising of the channel in 2015.

On August 9, Gvaramia was charged for committing an offense under Article 220 of the Criminal Code of Georgia, involving the use of managerial and representational powers in an enterprise against the legitimate interest of that enterprise for the purpose of profiting from others, which caused significant damage.

Gvaramia denied his presumed guilt. “They will regret making such shameful moves against me,” he said.

On August 12, Tbilisi City Court ordered Nika Gvaramia to pay 40,000 GEL bail. Additionally, they banned him from leaving the country without first warning the Prosecutor's Office.

That day, Khalvashi revealed his plan to sell 100% shares of Rustavi 2, naming insufficient finances “to pull the company out of its deep crisis” as the reason for his decision. The Georgian businessman put the blame on Gvaramia, saying: “The former CEO of the company, Nika Gvaramia, to whom Rustavi 2 was only an instrument of political struggle, did not manage the company in good faith. It turns out he was practically robbing the company and is now openly threatening that he will destroy it. I am sure that was his interest from the very beginning.”

On August 15, Gvaramia officially refused to pay the bail, claiming that as he had committed no crime, he saw no reason to pay anything.

Three days later, he announced the establishment of a new TV Channel, Mtavari Arkhi, writing on his Facebook page that he is to be the owner and director of the new company. Later, he said it already had investors and would have “a better building and technologies than Rustavi 2.”

On August 20, Khalvashi announced that as no real buyer had shown a desire to purchase the shares of Rustavi 2, he had either to file for bankruptcy or try and save the company. Choosing, the “go big” option, Khalvashi reported that he would try to save the channel. Once his decision was made public, the new Director-General announced that employees would be dismissed from Rustavi 2. This included Head of TV’s News Department, Nodar Meladze, and TV anchors Giorgi Gabunia, Eka Kvesitadze, Nanuka Zhorzholiani as well as the secretary of the Director General, and producer Giorgi Laperashvili.

His July 18 promise not to change the editorial policy of the TV company was turning sour.

GEORGIA TODAY spoke to Nanuka Zhorzholiani, one of the leading TV anchors and journalists in the Georgian media market talking about her future plans after being forced to leave Rustavi 2. “I will continue to work in journalism alongside Gvaramia at Mtavari Arkhi. My program on Mtavari Arkhi will take the form of social talk-show,” she told us. Nanuka also revealed that her Youtube Channel will become more and more active and there she will “go live and offer reportages about popular topics among society.”

TV anchors Diana Jojua and Misha Sesiashvili left Rustavi 2 while on air. “I cannot sit as a TV anchor for a TV channel that belongs to a Kremlin employee,” Jojua said, referring to Bidzina Ivanishvili. “Today, I have to say goodbye, I cannot work for Rustavi 2 anymore, now that it has become impossible to speak the truth here.”

The next day, more journalists left Rustavi 2 in protest, in all 18, making up the majority of the Rustavi 2 team.

On August 22, Rustavi 2 TV anchors Lasha Bughadze, Keti Devdariani, Nestan Nene Kvinikadze and Dato Turashvili also left the channel. “There is no alternative to freedom and freedom is not for sale,” they said of their decision to quit.

Gvaramia invited them all to join him at Mtavari Arkhi.

“The top players who created Rustavi 2 are on board and we are about to take off…It’s up to you whether you want to be with the winners and hop on the departing ship [or stay with] Ivanishvili’s TV channel. Don’t say later that you had no choice,” read Gvaramia’s Facebook Post.

It is reported that journalists are already signing up to join the new TV channel whose logo reads “Get Your Freedom with Us.” Mtavari Arkhi will go on air in September. What will become of the previous “freedom fighter” TV channel, Rustavi 2, is yet to be seen.

By Nini Dakhundaridze

26 August 2019 18:34