Opinion of Transparency International Georgia on Rustavi 2 Case
Transparency International Georgia is extremely concerned over the unanimous decision reached by the Grand Chamber of the Supreme Court, which transferred the ownership of TV Company Rustavi 2 shares to Kibar Khalvashi (60%) and LLC Panorama (40%). The monitoring of the case as well as the final decision provide grounds to claim with assurance that the principle of fair trial has been violated throughout the proceedings. Rustavi 2 case gives an impression of government’s attempt to take control over the main opposition media outlet, which significantly damages democracy in Georgia.
At this moment only the ruling is published and the reasoning behind the decision is not available. However, taking into account the general political interests behind the case, we consider it important to point to a few circumstances that raise questions regarding the proceedings in all three instances of the courts as well as the recent decision:
At every stage of the case there have been questions regarding the independence and impartiality of the judges. More specifically, at first instance court doubts were raised that the launching of criminal prosecution against the mother of presiding judge may have be used for pressuring him. Rustavi 2 attorneys asked for judges’ recusal in Appellate court as well. Also, criminal investigation was launched by the Prosecutor’s Office over an alleged gross interference in adjudicating process of two members of the Grand Chamber of the Supreme Court. It was Rustavi 2 who reported on this case. Before it was reported, an internet campaign was launched and several high officials made statements that the opposition party was trying to influence judges. Such developments may be considered as an attempt to form a public opinion suitable to the government.
The Grand Chamber reached a decision in extremely short period of time. On November 22th, 2016 the case of Rustavi 2 was sent to the Grand Chamber from the Chamber of Civil Cases. The composition of the Grand Chamber was made known only 3 days ago. Notably, the composition of the Grand Chamber was not defined before that date, which was also confirmed to us via telephone communication with the Supreme Court representative last week. It is unclear how a newly composed chamber managed to reach a decision on a case of multiple volumes in just three days, especially taking into consideration the grounds for sending a case to the Grand Chamber, which was the complexity of the case and the fact that the contents of the case had been considered as a rare legal problem. This gives a rise to reasonable suspicion that either the composition of the Grand Chamber had been defined long before it was announced and the judges had been handed the case materials or/and the decision had been pre prepared for publishing.
Since the first days of the hearings there have been doubts about political motivations behind the case. The doubts about political motivations in the first and second instance courts have not been shed, which have been noted many times by the local NGO’s and international organizations. A source of special concern was the interim ruling by the first instance court, which criticised the editorial policy of the independent TV company. There are also questions about the insufficient substantiation of decisions by city and appellate courts as well as about the extremely rapid pace of proceedings.
The decision is not consistent with the established practice of the Supreme Court. The decision by the Grand Chamber differs from the previous ruling (№ას-1224-1149-2015) of Civil law Chamber on a similar case on May 20th, 2016. The different approach taken in Rustavi 2 case intensifies doubts about the possible political motivation behind the case. Therefore, it is of special interest how the reasoned judgment will explain this difference.
Besides the judicial matters, it is also important to note that Rustavi 2 is critical of government and at the same time is the most-watched private TV company in Georgia. High level government officials never refrained from openly criticizing the station. High ratings and critical editorial policy of Rustavi 2 would explain government’s political interests in the case.
Transparency International Georgia has paid special interest to the Rustavi 2 case. Several statements have been made regarding the shortcomings identified throughout the process, including the arbitrary reduction of days for appeal by the appellate court and insufficiently substantiated rulings of first instance court. We will also examine the substantiation of the Supreme Court decision as soon as it is published and will present an opinion on it.
The change of the editorial policy of Rustavi 2, following the March 2 decision, could prove to be a decisive blow for the free media.This will likely cause irreparable damage to the pluralistic media environment in the country. This, in itself, will have an extremely negative impact on the country's democratic development, damage it's reputation on international level and jeopardize the future of Euro-Atlantic integration.