Friday, March 3 2017 19:04 EET
Protests Continue In Georgia Against Court Ruling On TV Station
Protests, Continue, Georgia,  Against, Court,  Ruling,TV, Station

TBILISI -- Some 150 people have continued to rally in the Georgian capital for a second day to protest a court ruling handing a popular independent television station to an owner with alleged ties to the government.

The Supreme Court ruled late on March 2 that Rustavi-2, a popular station known for reports that are critical of the government, should be returned to former co-owner Kibar Khalvashi.

The ruling angered government opponents in Georgia and caused concern in the West about freedom of the media in the former Soviet republic.

Protesters first rallied outside the court on March 2 and then moved to Rustavi-2's headquarters, where many continued their rally on March 3. At least one tent was set up outside the station, and some protesters spent the night.

Demonstrators say the court's decision was made to help the authorities silence criticism.

Khalvashi contends that the Georgian authorities under former President Mikheil Saakashvili forced him to sell the station at too cheap a price.

Opposition politicians charge billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, who founded the Georgian Dream coalition and served as prime minister for a year, was behind the court's ruling.

Georgian Dream defeated Saakashvili's party in an election in 2012 and strengthened its hold on power in another ballot in October 2016.

The U.S. Embassy in Tbilisi said the court ruling "could effectively limit the access of opposition voices to Georgian broadcast media."

"We urge the Georgian government to take steps to ensure that the media environment remains free, open, and pluralistic," the embassy's March 2 statement said.

"Disappointing move & huge blow to media pluralism in #Georgia," Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) media-freedom representative Dunja Mijatovic said on Twitter.

On March 3, Mijatovic urged the Georgian authorities to "ensure media independence and pluralism" following the ruling, according to a statement.

Rustavi-2 "must continue to enjoy full independence and fulfill its professional activity in the public interest," Mijatovic said. "Possible attempts to influence the editorial policy of Rustavi-2...would seriously undermine the pluralistic media environment."

Meanwhile, the Georgian government issued a statement on March 3, urging "respect...democratic institutions," and saying that the court ruling was made by "the independent judiciary."

The "government will spare no effort in ensuring that media freedom and the freedom of speech is protected," the statement added.

Khalvashi said in a televised interview on March 3 that as a businessman he might sell his shares in the future.

In response to these remarks, Nika Gvaramia, the director-general of Rustavi-2, publicly asked Khalvashi to sell the TV station shares to its staff.

Khalvashi told Imedi TV station that he did not have any plans to sell the TV company at the moment, adding that any of the current staff members who wish to stay at the company can stay.

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