New York, May 20, 2022 – Georgian authorities should release journalist Nika Gvaramia and allow him and all other press members in Georgia to work freely, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Friday.
On Monday, May 16, the City Court in the Georgian capital Tbilisi convicted Gvaramia, a TV presenter and general director at pro-opposition broadcaster Mtavari Arkhi (Main Channel), on charges of abuse of power while serving as director of another broadcaster, sentenced him to three and a half years in prison, and fined him 50,000 Lari (US$16,670), according to news reports and Gvaramia’s lawyer, Dimitri Sadzaglishvili, who spoke to CPJ by phone.
Gvaramia’s colleagues and local and international NGOs have denounced the ruling as a politically motivated attempt to silence one of the country’s leading opposition-leaning broadcasters. In a statement released Monday, the U.S. Embassy in Georgia said the decision “calls into question Georgia’s commitment to rule of law.”
Gvaramia denies the charges and plans to appeal the sentence, Sadzaglishvili told CPJ.
“The harsh sentence against Nika Gvaramia gives every indication of being designed to not only silence an inconvenient media manager and journalist but to target critical media outlets in the country,” said Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator, in New York. “Georgian authorities should launch an immediate review of Gvaramia’s case, refrain from harassing the opposition-minded press, and take concrete steps to show they are willing to respect media diversity.”
The court found Gvaramia guilty of abusing his position as director of the independent private broadcaster Rustavi 2 in 2019 when he allegedly exchanged advertising rights for a company car that he then used as his own. The court fined the journalist for allegedly costing the broadcaster 6.8 million Lari (US$2.2 million) in damages by negotiating an unfavorable advertising deal in 2015, according to Sadzaglishvili and a statement by the Prosecutor’s Office of Georgia.
The court acquitted Gvaramia on charges of money laundering, commercial bribery, and using forged documents about the 2015 advertising deal, and requalified the charge on which he was convicted over this deal from embezzlement to abuse of power, those sources stated. The Prosecutor’s Office intends to appeal this decision, according to its statement.
Sadzaglishvili described Gvaramia’s imprisonment over the 2019 procurement and use of the company car as “absurd,” saying that company owners from that time testified in court that they permitted Gvaramia to purchase and use the car and that there is no precedent in Georgian law for imprisoning a general director for the use of a company’s assets.
Analyses of the case against Gvaramia by the Public Defender of Georgia, an independent human rights ombudsman elected by parliament, and the local office of anticorruption NGO Transparency International, concluded that there were no legal grounds for holding him criminally liable for the alleged actions and that the allegations should at most have led only to corporate liability.
In 2019, Georgia’s Supreme Court ruled that the assets of Rustavi 2, then Georgia’s leading opposition broadcaster under Gvaramia’s directorship, should be handed to its former owner, who is allegedly favorable to the current government, Sadzaglishvili said.
Following the transfer, Gvaramia announced plans to set up Mtavari Arkhi and a few weeks later, authorities brought the current charges against him. Gvaramia also serves as the host of Mtavari Arkhi’s primetime current affairs show, “Mtavari Aktsent’ebi” (Main Accents), which is heavily critical of the current authorities.
Gvaramia was a justice and education minister in the government of former President Mikhail Saakashvili, who is currently serving a six-year sentence on allegations of abuse of office that he has denounced as politically motivated, according to news reports.
CPJ emailed the Prosecutor’s Office and the Ministry of Justice of Georgia for comment but did not receive any replies.
Editor’s note: The description of the charges that Gvaramia faced has been corrected in the second, seventh, and 11th paragraphs.