Jailing of Georgian media owner raises press freedom questions
The imprisonment of a prominent journalist and editor of a pro-opposition TV channel has raised concerns about Georgia’s commitment to press freedom and democratic values.
On May 16, a Tbilisi court sentenced Nika Gvaramia, presenter and editor of Mtavari Arkhi (Main Channel), to three and a half years in prison and fined her 50,000 Georgian lari (US$16,670). ).
He was found guilty of abuse of power while director of Rustavi 2, an independent broadcaster he ran until 2019. His lawyer, Dito Sadzaglishvili, called the decision “illegal”.
“Gvaramia was taken into political captivity. Political repressions are ongoing in Georgia,” he told reporters. “In democratic countries, journalists are not imprisoned for their dissenting opinions.
A lawyer by training, Gvamaria is close to former President Mikheil Saakashvili and served as Attorney General, Minister of Justice and Minister of Education in his government between 2007 and 2009. He is also one of the lawyers representing Saakashvili after his arrest for abuse of power in October 2021 upon his return to the country after eight years in exile.
The country’s media professionals have long accused the ruling Georgian Dream party of using state institutions, including the judiciary, to stifle independent voices.
“If Gvaramia was arrested on false charges, it means that [the authorities] can detain any journalist who is unacceptable to them,” Tazo Kupreishvili, editor-in-chief of the Netgazeti news outlet, told IWPR. “Independent media are struggling financially; companies are afraid to advertise [with us]. We do not have access to public information; the doors of government agencies are closed to us. Journalists from critical media are often physically attacked. All this poses a serious threat to the existence of independent media, and without them, democratic development is impossible.
Opposition parties, rights groups and diplomatic representations echoed his views, accusing the government of abusing the judicial system and warning that it was undermining the country’s aspirations to join the EU. EU.
Georgian Dream dismissed all the claims, calling them a “hysterical campaign”.
Reporters Without Borders’ annual press freedom index ranks Georgia 89th out of 180 countries, a dramatic drop from 60th place in 2020. The press freedom watchdog press recorded “an unprecedented level of physical violence against journalists” and warned that “interference undermines efforts to improve press freedom”.
Gvaramia left Rustavi 2 in 2019 after an ownership dispute led the European Court of Human Rights to uphold a Georgia Supreme Court decision to return the TV channel to one of its former owners. The journalist accused the government of using the judicial system to give the property to Kibar Khalvashi, a businessman seen as loyal to the ruling party.
The court found Gvaramia guilty of brokering an unfavorable advertising deal in 2015, which the Georgia prosecutor’s office said cost Rustavi 2 about 6.8 million lari ($2.3 million). He was also accused of abusing his position as he allegedly traded advertising rights with advertising company Proesco Media for a Porsche Macan S company car which he later used as his own.
According to the prosecution, in 2019, Proesco Media paid 76,700 euros (81,793 dollars), corresponding to the price of the car, to the dealer in exchange for advertising time on Rustavi 2.
Gvaramia’s defense called the jailing for buying and using the company car in 2019 “absurd”, saying the company’s owners at the time testified in court that he had been allowed to buy the car, which he then used as it was an asset to the company he ran.
Rights groups including the Public Defender of Georgia and anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International (TI) Georgia have analyzed the case, concluding that there is no legal basis to hold Gvaramia criminally liable.
“A business decision may not even attract corporate liability, let alone criminal liability,” Public Defender Nino Lomjaria’s office wrote in a letter to the Tbilisi court.
Gvaramia was acquitted of money laundering, bribery and forgery charges, as initially requested by the prosecutor’s office, which announced it would appeal. His co-defendant Kakhaber Damenia, a former finance director of Rustavi 2, was found guilty of embezzlement and ordered to pay a fine of 50,000 lari ($17,500).
In a statement, the U.S. Embassy in Georgia said that “since its inception, this case has raised questions, including timing and charges,” adding that the decision “calls into question the commitment of the Georgia for the rule of law, and further demonstrates the fundamental importance of having an independent and impartial judiciary”.
The decision came at a crucial time. On March 3, a week after Russia invaded Ukraine, the government applied to join the EU alongside Moldova and Ukraine.
Support for EU membership is strong across the political spectrum, but opposition political parties fear the decision could affect Georgia’s path to Brussels.
“Using the judiciary as a political tool will challenge our EU candidacy,” Irakli Kupradze, Lelo party member for Georgia, told IWPR.
Kupradze warned that the government’s actions had drawn Tbilisi away from Brussels, adding that “Gvaramia’s arrest is a clear sign that Georgia’s European choice is in danger and the Georgian dream is on its way to Russia.”
As Georgia works on its EU bid, the bloc reported five setbacks to ‘the justice system and rule of law’, including the lack of ‘credible investigation and prosecution of organizers of “mass violence against more than 50 journalists on July 5, 2021.
“By arresting Gvaramia, authorities are telling other media that critical activity is dangerous and punishable. This will have a negative impact on the media environment, which has already deteriorated significantly over the past year,” Mamuka Andghuladze, media program manager at TI Georgia, told IWPR.
A well-known and controversial figure, Gvaramia has been an outspoken critic of the ruling party since he came to power in 2012. He has publicly accused the government of persecution, citing attempts at bribery, intimidation and blackmail, including with images featuring details. of his private life.
In 2012, he became director of Rustavi 2 and remained at the head of the opposition television channel until July 18, 2019, when the Strasbourg court returned it to its former owner. Gvaramia resigned and established Mtavari Arkhi TV, which became a leading national channel.
Davit Dvali, who co-founded Rustavi 2 in 1994, set up a media freedom fund to support Mtavari Arkhi, making an initial contribution of 10,000 lari ($3,515).
“Today the front line passes here,” he told IWPR. “The attack on the main opposition channel greatly reduces the chances of Georgia’s centuries-old efforts to establish its place in the Commonwealth of civilized countries [the EU]. I think it is our duty not to allow the government to silence the TV station and support critical media with all we can.
This publication has been prepared under the “Amplify, Verify, Engage (AVE) Project” implemented with the financial support of the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.