Three Trends Revealed in Hearings against Media
Recently, local and international organizations have reported a significant deterioration of the media environment in Georgia. In addition, it is particularly difficult for representatives of critical media to carry out their professional activities. In recent years, we have witnessed a number of challenges or trends aimed at restricting the activities of critical media and discrediting them. In particular, defamation lawsuits against media professionals have become more frequent, providing an additional lever for the government to restrict unwanted media.
Transparency International Georgia is defending the rights of some 200 journalists and other media representatives in court, both in terms of labor law and other rights. The review of the current cases has revealed important trends that are in direct contradiction with the criteria established by the law and the Supreme Court, and that threaten the high standard of freedom of speech and expression established by the Court so far.
Court hearings are unreasonably long
The inequality of the court’s approach to the time limits for the hearing of the case is particularly noticeable during legal proceedings. It is noteworthy that in almost all other cases conducted by us, the violation of legal deadlines of hearings was revealed; however, defamation cases against media representatives are considered a priority for the court and are therefore heard within a shorter period.
For example, on April 18, 2022, Transparency International Georgia filed a lawsuit with the court to defend the rights of 24 journalists who were injured during the July 5, 2021 developments. So far, not a single hearing has been scheduled for this case. And this happened when the defamation case of the mother of Irakli Kobakhidze, the chairman of the ruling party, against TV Pirveli in the court of first instance ended in six months. The court reviewed the case of Tbilisi Mayor Kakha Kaladze against the anchor of TV Pirveli in a particularly short time, within three months. In both cases, the court ruled against the media.
Transparency International Georgia has been defending the rights of illegally dismissed people in court for years. Unfortunately, it should be noted that not only are the deliberations of the court of first instance on the cases we filed to protect the rights of media representatives not completed within six months, but in some cases no hearing is even scheduled during this period. Such special treatment of government officials and their family members points to signs of selective justice.
Court practice is ignored in case considerations
The court is not guided by the criteria established by the law and the solid practice of the Supreme Court in cases involving the media and journalists. It is particularly worrying that the court places the burden of proof on the media, which has a significant impact on the final decision. Such a trend is particularly noticeable when dealing with defamation cases against media representatives.
The decision of the Tbilisi City Court of November 19, 2021 against TV Pirveli is a good example of the court’s radically different explanation of the high standard of the burden of proof established by the law and the imposition of the burden of proof on the media representative. Based on an unsubstantiated explanation, the judge changed the standard provided by the law, according to which any doubt should be resolved against the restriction of freedom of speech and placed the burden of proof on the media representative. As a result, the claim was satisfied, and TV Pirveli was ordered to pay compensation for moral damages.
In labor disputes, the court places the burden of proof on media representatives
The tendency of uneven allocation of the burden of proof can also be seen in labor disputes. It should be noted that labor disputes are characterized by the peculiarity of the allocation of the burden of proof, which is determined by the unequal abilities of the employer and the employee. The employer has the evidentiary privilege to present evidence to the court and justify the legality of the decision to dismiss.
In contrast, in the case of one of the journalists, Giorgi Lominadze vs. Rustavi 2 TV, the Tbilisi Court of Appeals imposed on the plaintiff the obligation to provide evidence of the termination of the employment contract, and, on this basis, did not satisfy the journalist’s claims. A similar trend was observed in the case of Giorgi Sukhitashvili against the Georgian Public Broadcaster. The Tbilisi City Court and the Tbilisi Court of Appeals placed the burden of proving the legality of the reorganization on the plaintiff, which is contrary to current practice. Both cases are currently under consideration by the Supreme Court. We hope that the court of cassation will overturn the decisions; otherwise, the existing standard of protection of labor rights in the country will deteriorate dramatically.
The government uses the court as an additional lever against critical media organizations and journalists. Moreover, the court’s rulings against media professionals significantly undermine the high standard of protection for both freedom of expression and labor rights in the country. Therefore, it is imperative that the Supreme Court objectively evaluate the decisions of the lower courts and uphold the high standard and practice it has established.