By Margarita Antidze
TBILISI, March 2 Georgia's Supreme Court on
Thursday ordered its biggest independent TV station, Rustavi 2,
returned to its former co-owner, in a move critics at home and
abroad called an attempt to silence the media.
Hundreds of viewers, opposition politicians and supporters
rallied outside the court and moved to the broadcaster's studio
building in a gesture of support after the ruling was announced.
The TV station has been fighting court battles since August
2015 when a lower court found in favour of former co-owner Kibar
Khalvashi and ordered his controlling stake returned to him.
Thursday's judgement confirmed that ruling.
Government officials have accused the popular TV station of
bias, while critics fear Khalvashi - a close supporter of the
ruling Georgian Dream party - will silence the only strong media
voice critical of the government in Georgia.
The U.S. Embassy said it viewed with concern a decision
"which could effectively limit the access of opposition voices
to Georgian broadcast media."
"A pluralistic media environment is essential for Georgia's
democratic growth and Euro-Atlantic aspirations," it said in a
The OSCE media representative on media freedom, Dunja
Mijatovic was also critical. "Disappointing move and huge blow
to media pluralism in Georgia," she tweeted.
Khalvashi, co-owner of Rustavi 2 from 2004 to 2006, says he
was forced to give up his controlling stake under the former
government of former president Mikheil Saakashvili.
Georgian Dream defeated Saakashvili's party in an election
in 2012 and strengthened its hold on power in another ballot in
The broadcaster's director general condemned Thursday's
decision, in which government officials have denied involvement,
as illegal and politically motivated.
"We have witnessed defeat of democracy, defeat of justice
and defeat of freedom of speech," Nika Gvaramia said during a
live talk-show at Rustavi 2.
"You've deprived the Georgian people of Rustavi 2, but we
will be defending freedom of speech until the end," Diana Jojua,
one of the broadcaster's anchors, said.
Gvaramia invited Khalvashi to sell Rustavi 2 to its current
management team after the new owner said he did not rule out
selling the broadcaster in the future.
"Transfer 100 percent of Rustavi 2 to these people and we
will satisfy your commercial interest," Gvaramia said in a
(Editing by Janet Lawrence and John Stonestreet)