Journalist Nika Gvaramia, founder and general director of pro-opposition broadcaster Mtavari Arkhi (Main Channel), has been serving a prison sentence of three and a half years in Georgia since May 2022 on charges of abuse of office while serving as director of the opposition broadcaster Rustavi 2.
Gvaramia hosts Mtavari Arkhi’s primetime current affairs show “Mtavari Aktsent’ebi” (Main Accents), where he has been critical of the ruling Georgian Dream party. Previously, he served as justice minister and education minister in the government of former President Mikheil Saakashvili, who is serving a six-year sentence on allegations of abuse of office, which he has denounced as politically motivated, according to news reports.
In 2019, when Gvaramia was director of Rustavi 2, then the country’s leading opposition broadcaster, Georgian authorities enforced a Supreme Court ruling to transfer the broadcaster’s assets to its former owner, seen as supportive of the Georgian Dream government, according to media reports and Gvaramia’s lawyer, Dimitri Sadzaglishvili, who spoke to CPJ in a telephone interview.
Following the transfer, Gvaramia announced plans to launch Mtavari Arkhi. A few weeks later, on August 9, 2019, authorities charged him with abuse of power and a series of financial crimes over business deals he had concluded while head of Rustavi 2, according to news reports, a statement by the prosecutor’s office, and Sadzaglishvili.
Prosecutors accused Gvaramia of causing Rustavi 2 damages totaling 6.8 million lari (US$2.5 million) by signing unfavorable advertising deals with companies with which he was closely associated, charging him with embezzlement, money laundering, commercial bribery, and use of forged documents, according to reports and Sadzaglishvili. The abuse of power charge stemmed from claims that Gvaramia had made a deal with a local Porsche dealer to exchange advertising rights for a vehicle that Gvaramia then used as his own, according to these sources and a statement by the prosecutor’s office.
Gvaramia denied the allegations, Sadzaglishvili told CPJ, arguing that the advertising deals made sense given the broadcaster’s situation at the time. Rustavi 2 owners from that time testified in court that they had permitted Gvaramia to purchase and use the car, Sadzaglishvili said.
On May 16, 2022, the City Court in Tbilisi, the capital, found Gvaramia guilty of causing 6.8 million lari in damage to Rustavi 2, but changed the charge from embezzlement to abuse of power and fined him 50,000 lari (US$18,300). It acquitted him of money laundering, commercial bribery, and forged document use, according to a statement by the prosecutor’s office. The court sentenced the journalist to three and a half years in prison for abusing his power to procure the vehicle.
Sadzaglishvili described Gvaramia’s imprisonment over the car as “absurd,” adding that there was no precedent in Georgian law for imprisoning a general director for the use of a company’s assets.
Reviews of the case by the Public Defender of Georgia, an independent human rights ombudsman elected by parliament, and by the local office of the international anticorruption group Transparency International concluded that there were no legal grounds for holding him criminally liable for the alleged actions.
Transparency International included Gvaramia in a list of “representatives of critical media outlets” whose prosecution has “coincided with the intensification of their criticism of authorities.” The organization concluded that the justice system “has been acting in agreement with the ruling party, and it has been used as a tool for political reprisals.” The list also included a major shareholder of Mtavari Arkhi and the father of the head of opposition broadcaster TV Pirveli.
Georgia’s Media Advocacy Coalition, an alliance of independent media and legal nongovernmental organizations, has also expressed concern that a September 2021 Supreme Court decision to overturn the acquittal of Davit Kezerashvili, another former minister under Saakashvili who is the owner of opposition broadcaster Formula TV, as well as the announcement of further litigation against him, may be a form of pressure on Formula TV.
The European Union cited concerns over “legal standards” in criminal cases brought against media owners among its reasons for denying Georgia EU candidate status in June 2022.
The U.S. Embassy in Georgia released a statement on May 16 saying the decision in Gvaramia’s case “calls into question Georgia’s commitment to rule of law,” while the European Parliament condemned the conviction in a June resolution, calling the charges “dubious.”
On November 2, the Tbilisi Court of Appeals upheld Gvaramia’s sentence, according to reports and Mtavari Arkhi lawyer Tamta Muradashvili, who communicated with CPJ via email. The court changed the 50,000 lari fine over the unfavorable advertising deals to a second three-and-a-half-year sentence, but ordered the sentences to be served concurrently, thereby leaving Gvaramia’s overall prison term unaffected, those sources said.
Gvaramia is serving his sentence in Penitentiary Institution No. 12 in the town of Rustavi, outside of Tbilisi, and does not have any health complaints, Mtavari Arkhi Deputy Director General Nina Nakashidze told CPJ by messaging app.
CPJ emailed the prosecutor’s office and the Ministry of Justice for comment but did not receive any replies.