TBILISI (Reuters) - Georgia, responding to an intervention from a European court, on Friday suspended a ruling from a domestic court that had placed the country’s biggest independent TV station under the control of a close ally of the government.
The country’s supreme court on Thursday ordered broadcaster Rustavi 2 returned to its former co-owner, businessman Kibar Khalvashi, in a move critics at home and abroad called an attempt to muzzle the media.
Rustavi 2’s lawyers challenged the ruling at the European Court of Human Rights, which on Friday ordered its temporary suspension.
“We will follow this procedure,” Justice Minister Tea Tsulukiani told reporters, adding that the Strasbourg-based court had also instructed the government to abstain “from interfering with the broadcaster’s editorial policy in any manner.”
Government officials have accused the popular TV station of bias, while critics fear Khalvashi - a close supporter of the ruling Georgian Dream party - will silence the only strong media voice critical of the government.
President Giorgi Margvelashvili, who is at odds with the ruling party, on Friday added his voice to earlier U.S. and OSCE criticism of the ownership change.
“The international community perceives the process ... not as a court case, but as a political process, which impacts media freedom and the pluralistic environment in Georgia,” he said in a televised statement.
Tsulukiani said the European court’s interim measure was in force until March 8, when it would examine the case further.
The TV station has been fighting court battles in Georgia since August 2015, when a lower court found in favor of Khalvashi, who says he was forced to give up his controlling stake under the former government of Mikheil Saakashvili.
The Supreme Court judgment confirmed that ruling on Thursday.
Georgian Dream defeated Saakashvili’s party in an election in 2012 and strengthened its hold on power in another ballot in October 2016.
editing by John Stonestreet