Demonstrators hold signs during a rally to protest against the government’s alleged attempts to silence the pro-opposition television channel Rustavi 2 TV station in Tbilisi on February 19, 2017. Since 2015, Georgia’s most popular network, Rustavi-2 TV, has been locked in an ownership tussle that sparked fears in the West of a looming clampdown on independent media by the ruling Georgian Dream coalition.
Vano Shlamov / AFP
Thousands of Georgians rallied in the capital Tbilisi on Sunday to protest the government’s alleged attempts to silence a pro-opposition television channel.
Since 2015, Georgia’s most popular network, Rustavi-2 TV, has been locked in an ownership tussle that sparked fears in the West of a looming clampdown on independent media by the ruling Georgian Dream coalition.
“We will not let the government restrict media freedom in this country,” the channel’s news anchor, Diana Jojua, told the rally outside parliament in Tbilisi’s main thoroughfare, Rustaveli Avenue.
“Together we will protect Rustavi-2 and the freedom of speech in Georgia.”
An AFP correspondent estimated the rally’s turnout to be about ten thousand people.
The protest comes after Rustavi-2 temporarily suspended broadcasting on Saturday in what deputy director Zaal Udumashvili said was “the most extreme form of protest” against the government’s attacks on media freedom.
The channel accuses the government of attempting to seize control via businessman Kibar Khalvashi, who sold a controlling stake in the network a decade ago and is now seeking to win it back through a lawsuit.
Lower courts ruled in 2015 and 2016 in favour of the businessman, who is believed to have close government ties, and Georgia’s Supreme Court is expected to deliver a final ruling in the coming days.
Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili — who is at loggerheads with the Georgian Dream government — pledged through a spokeswoman his “full support to all media outlets and especially to Rustavi-2, which has repeatedly been under threat.”
More than a dozen Georgian rights groups have issued a statement blasting the “unlawful” court rulings, saying they “fundamentally undermine freedom of media”.
But the authorities have strongly denied accusations that Khalvashi’s legal bid is part of a government attempt to bring the channel under its control.
In 2014, Rustavi-2’s founder Erosi Kitsmarishvili was found dead in his car with a gunshot wound to the head, according to police.
He had claimed the government saw him as an obstacle to its alleged plan to seize control of the station.