Georgia makes another step toward authoritarianism, as the main opposition TV channel director gets jailed for 3.5 years

16 May, 2022

Today, on May 16, the Georgian civil court found Nika Gvaramia, General Director of the TV Mtavari (Main Channel) guilty and sent him to prison for 3 years and 6 months. This arrest comes amidst the financial problems of the TV Mtavari, which is loathed by the Georgian Dream for being critical of the Government. Recent changes in legislation, limiting the inflow of finances from the gambling companies to the TV, as well as high fines on Mtavari TV by the regulatory commission and alleged pressure on ad placers not to contract critical TV outlets led to the financial problems of TV Mtavari. However, the channel managed to raise funds and maintain the second position among the Georgian TV media. After Gvaramia’s arrest the risk that the main opposition channel will be closed increases dramatically.

In a legally bizarre and highly politicized case, Nika Gvaramia was found guilty of exceeding his powers while running another opposition-minded TV channel - Rustavi 2. The prosecution argued that the managerial decisions by Gvaramia in 2015 incurred financial losses to Rustavi 2.

Rustavi 2 was the main opposition TV channel from 2012 to 2019, when it changed its owner as a result of a series of dubious court decisions and failed appeal to Strasbourg’s European Court of Human Rights. Since the ownership change, Rustavi 2 editorial policy shifted to the pro-Georgian Dream (GD). Gvaramia and most of the TV anchors left the channel in 2019 and launched a new TV Channel - Mtavari TV, which in a matter of months became the second most-watched TV station - after the leading pro-governmental Imedi TV.

On July 16, 2019, Nino Nizharadze, the former owner of 9% of Rustavi 2, filed a lawsuit against Nika Gvaramia and demanded an investigation into the abuse of power by Gvaramia. She claimed that Gvaramia's decisions had caused financial damage to the channel.

Non-governmental organizations believe that the case is politically motivated. Transparency International Georgia issued a statement on May 16 that “the case is politically motivated. It aims to punish Nika Gvaramia and disrupt the activities of a critical media outlet”. Earlier all major Georgian NGOs stated that they believed the case was politically motivated. In 2019 Public Defender of Georgia filed amicus curiae brief with the Tbilisi City Court, arguing that the case materials did not contain enough obvious signs for imposing criminal liability. The Human Rights Center published a legal opinion in 2020 dubbing charges against Gvaramia groundless and politically motivated.

Nika Gvaramia was publicly demonized by the Georgian Dream for his critical positions toward Bidzina Ivanishvili and the Government. Georgian Dream leaders and supporters led a disinformation campaign against him, accusing him of being homosexual. Prosecution and State Security tapped his phone, put him under surveillance, and Gvaramia was physically assaulted on a number of occasions throughout the last years. Former minister of Justice Thea Tsouloukiani publicly announced Nika Gvaramia’s cell phone number at the parliamentary session and called on GD supporters to contact Gvaramia. As a result, Gvaramia received approximately 4 000 calls from unknown persons verbally insulting him. Gvaramia was previously arrested in 2012 but was acquitted shortly.