The jailing of a politician turned media owner sends a 'bad message' from Georgia about the country's commitment to press freedom and Western ideals, international bodies and rights groups say.
Nika Gvaramia, director of the opposition station Mtavari TV, appeared in court in the capital, Tbilisi, on Monday accused of harming the financial interests of a media outlet that he previously ran.
The court convicted Gvaramia of abuse of power related to his time as general manager and director of the independent TV station Rustavi 2. He was sentenced to three years and six months in prison.
His lawyer, Dimitri Sadzaglishvili, told local media they plan to appeal.
Gvaramia left Rustavi in 2019 after the European Court of Human Rights upheld a ruling by Georgia's Supreme Court that the station should be returned to one of its former owners.
In response to the takeover, Gvaramia accused the government of using the judiciary system to give ownership to Kibar Khalvashi, a businessman seen as loyal to the ruling Georgian Dream party.
Both Gvaramia and other figures in Georgia's opposition media have said they believe the ruling party is attempting to silence critical media.
In response to VOA's request for comment, a spokesperson in Georgia's Embassy in Washington said that the embassy 'will refrain from commenting' on the case.
As well as working in media, Gvaramia was previously involved in politics, holding the posts of Minister of Justice and Minister of Education and Science under former President Mikheil Saakashvili in 2007 and 2008.
FILE - Georgian former President Mikheil Saakashvili, who was convicted in absentia of abuse of power during his presidency and arrested upon his return from exile, holds a candle in a defendant's dock during a court hearing in Tbilisi, Georgia, March 17, 2022.
He is also one of the lawyers representing Saakashvili, who was imprisoned in October 2021 upon returning to Georgia after eight years in exile. A court convicted the former leader in absentia of misuse of power.
The arrest of a prominent media figure sparked international condemnation, with analysts and rights groups calling the case politically motivated.
David Kramer, managing director for global policy at the George W. Bush Institute, told VOA's Georgian Service he believes the sentencing 'is the latest evidence of the government abusing the judicial system to go after the political opponents.'
'It is not the first time; I fear it won't be the last time,' said Kramer, who under President George W. Bush was the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor.
The U.S embassy in Georgia said the case brings into question Georgia's commitment to Western orientation.
'From its inception, this case has raised questions, including about the timing and the charges,' the U.S embassy statement read. It added that the ruling 'calls into question Georgia's commitment to rule of law, and further demonstrates the fundamental importance of having an independent, impartial judiciary.'
FILE - Rasa Jukneviciene, head of NATO Parliamentary Assembly delegation, attends a press conference in Kyiv, Oct. 27, 2014.
European Parliament member Rasa Jukneviciene noted that the arrest comes as Georgia pushes for membership to the EU.
'It's one more bad message from Georgia, in terms of the Georgian people's attempt to join the European Union one day,' Jukneviciene, a politician from Lithuania, told VOA. 'This message comes as the European Commission will very soon be making a proposal to the EU Council on countries like Ukraine and Georgia for their candidacy status.'
Georgia applied for EU membership in early March, shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine.
Georgia says it wants EU integration. But Kramer said he believes that the Georgian Dream party is using government institutions for its own interests.
'I think the way to handle this is through a tough love approach, if you will, which is to continue to support Georgia, the country, the people, while going after the people who are responsible for taking Georgia in a wrong direction politically,' he said.
The nongovernmental organization Transparency International-Georgia said the case appeared to be politically motivated and aimed at 'punish[ing] Nika Gvaramia and disrupt[ing] the activities of a critical media outlet.'
'The use of the justice system for media censorship and intimidation sends a clear message to other critical media outlets as well,' Transparency International-Georgia said in a statement.
Keti Khutsishvili, executive director of the Open Society Georgia Foundation, said the case showed 'no signs of criminal liability, and therefore it should be discussed as an entrepreneurial affair.'
Linking income, liability
The investigation into Gvaramia started in 2019.
According to the public defender, the Prosecutor's Office of Georgia was trying to prove that Gvaramia 'could have brought more income to the company but he did not do so, and that this is a crime.'
FILE - Nika Gvaramia, chief executive officer of Rustavi 2, speaks during a rally to support opposition TV channel Rustavi 2 in Tbilisi, Georgia, Feb. 19, 2017.
The office of Public Defender Nino Lomjaria, however, told the Tbilisi court via a letter that Gvaramia's actions were not criminal.
'An entrepreneurial decision may not lead even to corporate liability, not to mention criminal liability. The decision made by the director might be to make less profit, but it might serve the best interests of the corporation and aim to insure against short-term or long-term risks,' the letter read.
Deputy Public Defender Giorgi Burjanadze believes the court ruling sets a dangerous precedent for media and media managers.
'This action has a very big impact on the media,' he told VOA.
'We are talking about actions inside media, and a director gets punished because government tells him that he had to bring more income,' Burjanadzde said. 'If theoretically we agree that this is right and the government can punish someone for this, in future this will have chilling effect for others, because every manager will think that if they did not get profit, they automatically are guilty.'
Such an approach could impact Georgia's standing on press freedom rankings and be a 'step back,' he added.
Currently, Georgia ranks 89 out of 180 countries, where 1 is freest, according to the annual index by Reporters Without Borders. The media watchdog warns that 'official interference undermines efforts undertaken to improve press freedom.'
This article originated in VOA's Georgian Service.