July 18, 2019 / 1:34 PM / a month ago

Europe's human rights court rules against owners of Georgian pro-opposition TV channel in ownership row

TBILISI (Reuters) - Europe’s human rights court dismissed on Thursday a case filed by the owners of a Georgian pro-opposition television channel Rustavi 2 accusing Georgia’s Supreme Court of bias and that it was subject to a state-led campaign to silence it.

In recent years the popular TV station, which overtly criticizes Moscow, has been at the center of a highly politicized ownership row which the opposition says is part of an attempt to muzzle the media.

In 2017 Georgia’s Supreme Court ruled that the channel’s former co-owner, businessman and government ally Kibar Khalvashi, had been coerced into giving up his controlling stake in 2006 under former president Mikheil Saakashvili, and ordered the current owners to restore it to him.

But the European Court of Human Rights imposed a suspension on the verdict two years ago, after which Rustavi 2 filed its own case challenging the Supreme Court ruling, alleging judge bias and breach of fair trial guarantees.

In its ruling on Thursday the Strasbourg-based court lifted the interim suspension and rejected “as inadmissible complaints brought by Rustavi 2 owners, including their allegations that the proceedings had been a state-led campaign to silence the television channel.”

“This decision is shocking,” Nika Gvaramia, the broadcaster’s director general, said in a televised statement.

He said Rustavi 2’s owners would appeal the verdict at the European court’s grand chamber. Rustavi 2 staff said they would not work under management appointed by Khalvashi.

Georgia’s Justice Minister Tea Tsulukiani said that the European court’s verdict “confirmed that Georgian supreme court’s decision was fair.”

Government officials have accused the popular TV station of bias, while critics fear Khalvashi - a close supporter of the ruling Georgian Dream party - would silence the only strong media voice critical of the government.

Khalvashi said on Thursday he would guarantee editorial freedom to all journalists and would not interfere in the editorial policy.

“The change will concern only one person - Nika Gvaramia, (the broadcaster’s current director general), who won’t be able to work at Rustavi 2 anymore,” Khalvashi said in a statement.

Gvaramia said his dismissal would be illegal as his contract guaranteed independence from the broadcaster’s owners.

The government acccuses Rustavi 2 of bias. Two weeks ago the channel broadcast a program during which the host, Giorgi Gabunia, speaking in Russian, used offensive language to personally insult Putin and the Russian leader’s late parents.

Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky

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