The Bleeding of Rustavi 2 - Our New August Surprise
12 August, 2015
The Bleeding of Rustavi 2 - Our New August Surprise
When the powerful have to make something happen that they want few people to notice, they issue the statement late in the afternoon so it can't be covered by the evening news and is a bit old for the next day’s evening news. If possible, they will do it late Friday, since people consume less news on the weekend. Best of all is to issue it on a holiday. For many people in Georgia and many diplomats, August is one long holiday. Tbilisi is hot and feels empty. What better time for an unpleasant surprise? We all remember August surprises.

For better or worse, TV is at the heart of Georgian politics and Rustavi 2 is the most popular TV news in Georgia. Some may believe that it is bad or wrong, but to say that therefore it should be shut down is an easy but dangerous leap.

Rustavi 2 has been always been at the heart of Georgia's democracy. It was a thorn in Shevardnadze's side from the the day it started in 1994. He sent in tax inspection over and over but with no luck. Finally in late October 2001 he sent in some goons to just shut it down. Rustavi 2 recorded them live and everybody could watch what was happening. Many went to their office near Delisi Metro to show support. They told everybody to meet in front of the Parliament the next day. There were a few hundred people there but probably not enough to save the station. But then thousands of students marched from Sabortalo past all the campuses of the university all the way to the Parliament building. It was a huge crowd, and it worked. Zura Zhvania resigned as chair of Parliament and the real opposition to Shevardnadze began. All because the government tried to close down Rustavi 2.

In the background of this event is a long list of people in the current leadership saying that the station is inaccurate, is a tool of the former government, is bad, or even that it should be shut down.

Under the National Movement, Rustavi 2 was much less popular or influential because it tended to say what the government wanted. Its “Kurieri” news broadcasts became boring and people watched other channels, particularly Badri Paterkatsishvili's Imedi. Imedi broke the story of the murder of Sandro Girgvliani and heavily covered the demonstrations of 2007. The leadership sent riot
police into the station and shut it down while it was broadcasting in a stunning demonstration of the government’s discomfort with free speech. A sad reality of the Imedi shutdown was many supporters of the National Movement saying that the station was calling for the overthrow of the state and thus dangerous, so therefore the closure was legitimate. This was a stupid argument and an unconvincing excuse, and closing the outlet was a bad mistake. Imedi was then turned into a government mouthpiece. It even showed perhaps the saddest and most embarrassing TV show of the Misha era: The so called "Imedi War" in 2010 when they pretended Russia was invading. People panicked for several minutes and were then left looking at the leadership in fear and contempt when they were told it was fake.

This most recent attack was initiated by a judge. The plaintiff asked for "injunctive relief", which prevents a company from operating while in a civil case. Normally, both the need to do this as well as the fact that it will do no harm must be proven to a judge. In the background of this event is a long list of people in the current leadership saying that the station is inaccurate, is a tool of the former government, is bad, or even that it should be shut down. These were all politicians saying this, but the actual wound was inflicted by a judge. So, if people say that Rustavi 2 should be allowed to broadcast, then the government says with a serious face that the courts are independent and nobody can pressure the courts during the appeal process. This is exactly what the leadership said in Misha's times, and a sad continuation of the judiciary executing political dirty work.

Georgia is stronger when we can hear many voices and those who try to silence those voices are weakening both the nation and the state and illustrating their own fear.

For better or worse, TV is at the heart of Georgian politics and Rustavi 2 is the most popular TV news in Georgia. Some may believe that it is bad or wrong, saying that it should be shut down for these reasons is an easy but dangerous leap. Two of the most important things that differentiate this government from the past ones is the freedom of broadcast media and a more independent judiciary. Now, with the decision of one single judge, this too has been called into question. Is that changing now? Will this injunctive relief be used by the court to simply bleed the station until it expires slowly on the sidewalk with everybody watching? Will hiding behind cautious judicial procedure become the new normal? Will this start happening to other businesses? No civil appeal case I have seen in Georgia will be more carefully watched and explain more to both the people of Georgia and the international community.

In the final analysis, Georgia is stronger when we can hear many voices and those who try to silence those voices are weakening both the nation and the state and illustrating their own fear. The Soviet authorities would say the people would not be able to correctly interpret Voice of America so they jammed it, but everybody knew they were simply afraid. The National Movement closed down Imedi because they were afraid of its power to limit their ability to conceal what they were doing and had done.

Many people have already been asked about what they think about a judge deciding to bleed Rustavi 2. Most of them answer that Rustavi 2 is bad, biased, etc. But is that reason enough to close it? They say Misha closed Imedi. Is that a sufficient excuse to close Rustavi 2 too? Certainly the court can try to sort out the company’s ownership, which is a complex saga that might take decades, but are we really to believe that in this particular case it is absolutely necessary to make it impossible for Rustavi 2 to operate while that long and complex civil case takes place? Who does that benefit?

A quote often attributed to Voltaire but actually written by his British biographer Ms. Beatrice Evelyn Hall is “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” When Imedi was closed down in 2007, a few government supporters openly condemned the action. A tiny group of people was very vocal about that issue, but not many and not for too long. And those who support the current leadership and dislike the tone and content of Rustavi 2 - what will they say? This is not just a question of personal ethics; it is a question that will very much influence Georgia's future. Are we doomed to repeat our mistakes over and over again, or can we respect each other’s rights even if we don't agree with each other’s opinions and move forward to a stronger, more secure union? Or, on the other hand, are we still doomed to a society where whoever has power can use every possible lever and process to consolidate their own position and hold back those they disagree with?

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