UPDATE: On March 7, the seven-member Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights extended the interim measure suspending the enforcement of the Supreme Court's March 2 decision "until further notice."

(Tbilisi) – An ownership dispute over Georgia’s most-watched television broadcaster, Rustavi 2, has sparked serious concerns about potential government interference with both media and the judiciary, Human Rights Watch said today.

Rustavi 2’s current leadership, the political opposition, and many independent groups see a lawsuit by a former owner seeking to retake ownership and a March 2, 2017 ruling by the Supreme Court endorsing the change as a government-orchestrated move to take over the opposition-minded station. The European Court of Human Rights has ordered temporary suspension of the Supreme Court decision and instructed the Georgian authorities to refrain from interference in the station.

“A government-favored change in the editorial policy of Rustavi 2 would deliver a serious blow to Georgia’s media pluralism and could significantly limit the public’s access to opposition views,” said Giorgi Gogia, South Caucasus director at Human Rights Watch. “The entire process of contesting Rustavi 2’s ownership threatens media freedom and judicial independence and demands further scrutiny.”

Concerns about potential government interference in Rustavi 2 have been exacerbated by other developments in the overall media landscape in Georgia that have reduced the space for critical opposition media, Human Rights Watch said.

The March 2 ruling by Georgia’s highest court of appeal said that the station’s ownership should revert to Kibar Khalvashi, a businessman who owned it from 2004 to 2006, and who alleged he had been improperly forced to sell the station at below market value by then-president Mikheil Saakashvili. The Supreme Court’s Grand Chamber, consisting of nine judges, issued a unanimous decision the same day it took up the case, declining to allow the parties to make oral arguments. The written judgement is expected in a month.

Khalvashi initiated the lawsuit in August 2015, claiming he had been strong-armed into relinquishing his majority stake by the then-Georgian leadership. Khalvashi’s key evidence was a report on the valuation of Rustavi 2 shares in 2005-2006 by a current state forensic bureau expert based on data Khalvashi provided. The report showed the shares were worth far more than Khalvashi received.

Rustavi 2’s current shareholders dispute the report’s validity, alleging that the valuation was based on inconclusive financial data and had not been compiled in accordance with international valuation standards. In November 2015, a judge from Tbilisi City Court ruled to reinstate Khalvashi as the majority owner. An appeal court upheld the decision in June 2016.

Rustavi 2’s current owners, brothers Giorgi and Levan Karamanishvili, are widely seen as close associates of Saakashvili. Nika Gvaramia, the station’s current general director, served in several high-level government posts during Saakashvili’s administration, and maintains close contact with him. Khalvashi and the current government are both strong opponents of Saakashvili.

The current owners, numerous Georgian human rights groups, Georgia’s ombudsman, and many of Georgia’s international partners have raised questions and concerns throughout the ownership dispute, suggesting possible government interference to silence critical, and in particular, opposition media.

Senior government officials have on multiple occasions made clear not only that they take issue with Rustavi 2’s editorial stand, but that they want to see the station’s ownership changed and given to Khalvashi, expressing clear support for the courts to act to strip the current leadership at the station.

The Tbilisi City Court judge also issued an interim injunction in November 2015, replacing Rustavi 2’s top management, including Gvaramia, with temporary management, contending that the station’s managers were too focused on the ownership dispute, to the detriment of other issues of public interest. Local human rights groups and Georgia’s international partners criticized the move as an attempt to affect the channel’s editorial policy.

A week later, the judge overturned his decision and reinstated the broadcaster’s top management. The Constitutional Court then suspended the civil procedure code clause that had allowed the appointment of temporary managers.

Domestic observers have raised questions about the independence and impartiality of the judges in this case. Rustavi 2 attorneys unsuccessfully sought to get the first-instance court judge recuse himself on the basis that pending criminal proceedings against the judge’s mother could have been used by the government as leverage against him.

The station’s current director, Gvaramia, has also made credible allegations of intimidation to pressure him to resign. In October 2015, Gvaramia alleged that a government official threatened to leak a personal video of him if he refused to “step aside.” Although the prosecutor’s office initiated an investigation, the results were inconclusive. A few days later, audio recordings appeared online, allegedly of Gvaramia receiving instructions from Saakashvili to prepare for a possible “physical confrontation” with the authorities to defend the station.

The Georgian government has consistently denied that it backs Khalvashi’s efforts to regain ownership or that it has interfered in anyway with the process. The government issued a statement the day after the Supreme Court ruling, emphasizing that “[T]he Government of Georgia has full appreciation and respect towards the freedom of media and does its best to protect and ensure a pluralistic media environment.”

On March 3, Rustavi 2 lodged an application with the European Court of Human Rights contesting the March 2 decision, saying that it violates guarantees under the European Convention on Human Rights. In a rare move on the same day, the European Court instructed the Georgian government to temporarily suspend enforcement of the March 2 decision and to “abstain from interfering with the applicant company’s editorial policy in any manner.” The government has complied with the temporary measure, which is to remain in effect until March 8. The European Court said it would treat the Rustavi 2 case as a priority.

The Georgian government’s compliance with the suspension measure is a positive move, Human Rights Watch said. It should agree to extend the suspension until the European Court’s final judgement and to allow scrutiny of all the human rights concerns raised by the ownership dispute.

The Council of Europe places a high premium on media pluralism and diversity of media content as integral to freedom of expression and information and essential for the functioning of a democratic society. It has called on it members to “adopt policies designed to foster as much as possible a variety of media and a plurality of information sources, thereby allowing a plurality of ideas and opinions.” The European Court has long held that the state has a key obligation to ensure media pluralism, noting that “this observation is especially valid in relation to audio-visual media, whose programmes are often broadcast very widely.”

In February, the leadership of the Public Broadcaster announced controversial plans to suspend political talk shows, citing reorganization plans to upgrade the station’s equipment and content.

In August 2015, Imedi TV, the second most-watched station, suspended its current-affairs political talk shows amid claims of government interference and pressure. The station merged with two other smaller broadcast stations, and now is largely viewed as a government-friendly channel.

Rustavi 2 was founded in 1994 in the town of Rustavi, about a 20-minute drive from Tbilisi, the capital. The station gained popularity for its hard-hitting investigative exposes and reporting on corruption during the administration of then-president Eduard Shevardnadze. After becoming the nation’s most-watched news channel, Rustavi 2 played a key role in catalyzing the November 2013 Rose Revolution, which brought Saakashvili to power. Rustavi 2 ownership changed hands multiple times after Khalvashi sold his shares, and before the current ownership.

“Democratic societies depend on safeguards to ensure the government of the day cannot unduly interfere with either an independent judiciary or the requirement of a pluralist media,” Gogia said. “With widespread concerns about such undue interference in Georgia, action should be taken to address them, and the process before the European Court of Human Rights could create the space and opportunity for that.”