Fear of turmoil in Georgia as top TV channel faces government pressure

Tbilisi (AFP) - Thousands of protesters rallied in Georgia on Thursday against the government's alleged attempts to silence the country's most popular television channel, raising fears of political turmoil in the Western-backed nation.

Several thousand protesters gathered outside the offices of Rustavi 2 TV which has been locked in a bitter power struggle with the government that critics say is aimed at stifling press freedom in the ex-Soviet state.

Some demonstrators held up placards reading "Hands off Rustavi 2 TV" and "Rustavi 2 belongs to people," an AFP correspondent said.

Georgia's biggest television station, Rustavi 2 has often been criticised of bias towards the pro-Western United National Movement (UNM) party of ex-president Mikhail Saakashvili.

In an emergency televised address to the nation, President Giorgi Margvelashvili said the recent developments around the channel had "threatened constitutional order" and set the stage for possible "social confrontation."

Margvelashvili said he was launching consultations with political parties, civil society activists and journalists "to find ways to maintain social stability and constitutional order."

Rustavi 2 has been locked in an ownership tussle since August that has rocked the Caucasus country of 4.5 million people and sparked fears in the West that the ruling Georgian Dream coalition could be looking to clamp down on independent media.

Over the summer, a court froze the broadcaster's assets after a businessman close to the government, who sold his controlling stake in the station a decade ago, began legal action to retake control of the network.

Government critics and the channel's owners have denounced the move as part of a government-orchestrated campaign aimed at stifling independent voices in the run-up to next year's parliamentary polls.

- 'Threat to democracy' -

"The government has decided to hand Rustavi 2 ownership over to a man under its control and that will amount to a closure of the country's most influential TV channel," Rustavi 2's deputy director Zaal Udumashvili told AFP.

"That will put an end to media pluralism in Georgia and threaten the very existence of Georgian democracy."

On Wednesday, the channel's director Nika Gvaramia said a government middleman had threatened to release secretly-recorded videos showing what he described as his "private life" in an attempt to force him to resign.

The prosecutor general has launched a probe into his claims which Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili said "looked pretty much like a provocation."

On Thursday, tensions reached a new peak, with the president and prime minister publicly exchanging barbs after the latter lashed out at the opposition.

Speaking at a cabinet meeting, Garibashvili called the United National Movement a "criminal organisation" which "has no right to remain in politics."

Margvelashvili later criticised the remarks, saying they "only added to tensions in an already tense situation."

Garibashvili's swipe at the UNM came just days after an opinion poll by the US-based National Democratic Institute showed a dramatic decline in support for the ruling coalition, putting it neck-and-neck with the UNM.

A senior UNM lawmaker, Giorgi Gabashvilli, said the government "had attacked Rustavi 2 for fear it would lose the 2016 election if there is free media."

- Prominent journalists sacked -

Rights groups and Western diplomats have denounced alleged government interference in the legal battle, a claim the authorities have rejected.

"There are a number of circumstances which cause serious suspicion about government's influence on the ongoing process" and "call into question any dissent or critical opinions in the media," a group of civil society and media organisations said in a statement.

The United States has also expressed concerns, saying actions that "give the appearance of... constricting media freedoms or compromising that media pluralism, are disturbing."

The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) on Thursday expressed "concern about the ongoing ownership dispute (...) and its implications for media pluralism in the country."

"The situation was especially worrisome given the importance of a pluralistic media environment ahead of parliamentary elections in Georgia," the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Dunja Mijatovic, said in a statement.

Adding to the controversy, several privately-owned television stations have in recent months shut down popular political talk shows and fired prominent journalists after coming under criticism from government.

Last year, Rustavi-2's founder and former owner, Erosi Kitsmarishvili, was found dead in his car after he claimed the government saw him as an obstacle to its alleged plan to seize control of the station.

Police said he was found with a gunshot wound to the head.

Independent media in Georgia has often had fraught relations with those in power since the country gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 with journalists chafing under the continuing political interference in their work.