Democracy on the block: How the ECHR saved Georgia’s free press

Commentary

This article is part of ECFR's Wider Europe Forum


The Georgian Dream may still have future, but to win back credibility, they have to learn from the Rustavi2 case and realise that they are accountable to the people who voted for them.

If Georgia ever becomes a member of the EU, March 2017 will be remembered as the watershed moment that defined its future path as a democracy. Why? Because on 2 March Georgia was finally granted visa liberalisation by the EU. Not only does visa liberalisation allow regular Georgians to easily visit and be exposed to the rest of Europe, it allows them to compare the real Europe to the Europe depicted by Russian propaganda.

The Georgian government celebrated the achievement and so did the public. But the government also used the opportunity as a PR campaign to silence those who accused the ruling Georgian Dream party, informally run by Georgia’s richest man – Bidzina Ivanishvili – of being ‘pro-Russian’.

But there were some who thought that the party would use this success to more easily shut down the embattled Rustavi2 opposition television network, which has managed to continue its work against the odds, and despite a longwinded court case over its ownership. Georgia’s Western partners have held firm in their convictions and their messaging to the country’s government that the network has to be left alone. The only reason Rustavi2 still exists is because visa liberalisation would never have been granted if the government had shut it down completely. Interestingly, the Rustavi2 case was set to be heard at the Supreme Court of Georgia on the day after visa liberalisation − 3 March.

The Rustavi2 ownership trial has gained significant public attention for various reasons. First of all, it was accompanied by a number of scandals that cast serious doubt on the independence of the Georgian judiciary, with stories emerging about judges being manipulated, blackmailed, or bribed. Nonetheless, the Georgian Dream party vowed that court was completely independent and that the state had nothing to do with fact that the current owners of the TV station were losing the case. 

Finally, in March, the case reached the Supreme Court. By this time things had taken a turn for the worse, in both the judiciary and the media. Two private TV stations were merged with a TV station called Georgian Dream Studio, also owned by the Ivanishvili family, and named after the ruling party. The station remained the main public broadcaster but soon its board elected a new director that happened to be a former producer at Georgian Dream Studio. The director immediately announced ‘reforms’ that implied shutting down most of the talk shows − some of them supported by Voice of America and Radio Liberty − effectively killing the TV station.

These events raised questions about the progress made by the country under the Georgian Dream party. Since 2012 the media has become freer than it was under the previous authorities. Indeed, the new government even succeeded on issues relating to EU integration. But now it seems that even though Georgian Dream behaved well in the eyes of the EU it pursued a typical post-Soviet policy at home, apparently failing to realise that in the West domestic policies perhaps matter even more than external ones.

Owing to the ‘reforms’, Rustavi2 became the only major opposition TV station, faced with its final trial. Optimists hoped that the Supreme Court at least remained free to some degree and would therefore rule in favour of the current owners. While sceptics were afraid that the Supreme Court was also controlled by the ruling party, even though many also hoped that the ruling party had enough common sense to realise that shutting down Rustavi2 would be seen as a huge blow to freedom of speech in a still-young Georgian democracy.

The day of the court trial brought an end to these hopes and dreams because the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in favour of the plaintiff, after just a few hours of proceedings. The ruling attracted harsh words from the US Embassy in Georgia and the OSCE Representative on the Freedom of the Media also strongly criticised it.

Georgian Dream responded by asserting that “the authorities could not intervene in decision of the independent court” and that the Rustavi2 case was “just a dispute between two private subjects”. They did not realise or simply chose not to acknowledge that Georgia’s Western partners did not believe the court to be independent.

Western diplomats had more than enough reasons to take affront at the court’s decision, because it looked like the Georgian Dream had tricked them. One day they extracted visa liberalisation rights, and the next day they went after the last major opposition TV station in the country. But the party didn’t care much about this obvious paradox. Instead, it openly enjoyed its victory. With a shadow looming over Georgia’s democracy, some EU politicians went as far as to say that Georgia should be deprived of visa liberalisation within days of being granted it. Perhaps it would be unfair on the Georgian people, but it would serve their government right.

Civil society activists and ordinary citizens gathered in front of Rustavi2’s central office and vowed to protect the TV station. They were joined by opposition parties that started to erect tents and prepare for a Maidan-style ‘sit-in’. But it was obvious that this form of resistance was futile − Rustavi2’s network would simply be shut off, and no amount of sitting and occupying would change that.

Then everything changed in just a few hours. On 4 March, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) decided to temporarily suspend the decision made by the Supreme Court. Never before has the ECHR made such a decision on matters of the free press. A few days later, the ECHR decided to prolong the suspension “until further notice”, sending a clear signal to Georgia that it has to pursue European policy at home, too. In just three days the EU made two historic decisions for Georgia – offering visa liberalisation and standing up for its press.

When the dust settles, everyone in Georgia should realise that the ECHR saved Georgia’s democracy. One also hopes that sooner or later the ruling party will realise it was also saved by the ECHR. Everyone has won, but not everyone seems to have realised that yet.     

The Georgian Dream may still have future, but to win back credibility, they have to learn from the Rustavi2 case and realise that they are accountable to the people who voted for them. Many voted for Georgian Dream because they offered more freedom than the former ruling party, and those very people are now backed by the ECHR. Rustavi2 will continue broadcasting and will likely become even more critical of the government, but that’s what democracy is about.

While many have breathed a sigh of relief that the opposition media can soldier on, the court case has demonstrated how corrupt the judiciary is. Indeed, it will have to be rebuilt from the bottom up. But with a free press, there is at least a solid chance to do so, and one more way of holding the government to account.  

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.

Read more on: Wider Europe Forum, Wider Europe, EaP

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