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If Nika Were Free: Georgia’s Fight for Media Freedom

By Pedro Pizano, Luke Englebert, and Brad Singer

For the last two decades, the international community has regarded Georgia as an emerging democracy in Eastern Europe.

However, in a region also threatened by Putin-led Russia’s autocratic influence, Georgia has seen an erosion of its democratic norms, especially regarding press freedom.

It started, in part, with the charges brought against media executive Nika Gvaramia on November 1, 2019.

Gvaramia founded Mtavari Television Channel, one of the few media watchdogs of the Georgian political establishment and its current governing party.

On May 16, 2022, a Georgian court sentenced Gavarmia —who has criticized the Georgian Dream party and its founder Bidzina Ivanishvili (a Georgian oligarch with alleged ties to Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin)— to 3.5 years imprisonment on charges of “abusing his position” when working for the television station Rustavi 2. Among the reasons for this unjust sentence, the prosecution cited the personal use of a company car, which they claimed amounted to embezzlement.

Experts highlight that the timing of Gvaramia’s imprisonment aligns with Georgia’s application for EU membership and could—and perhaps, must—undermine its attainment of candidacy status. The McCain Institute previously raised the alarm on Gvaramia’s detainment and continues to call for his release.

The international community must show its support for on-the-ground Georgian activists, including advocating for the release of Gvaramia. With his sentencing complete (pending review by the Supreme Court), one of the best ways to secure Gvaramia’s freedom is through a presidential pardon.

The current president, Salome Zourabichvili (not a member of the Georgia Dream party), supported and pardoned 10 prisoners during the most recent Easter holiday. Gvaramia’s route to a presidential pardon is clear. The McCain Institute and other organizations continue to call for this action.

EU-Candidacy Status

Georgia must guarantee free and independent news media to enter the EU.

One of the 12 goals or priorities created by the European Parliament for Georgia’s candidacy as a member state exhorts Georgia to:

“Undertake stronger efforts to guarantee a free, professional, pluralistic[,] and independent media environment, notably by ensuring that criminal procedures brought against media owners [Nika Gvaramia] fulfill the highest legal standards.”

However, current Georgian Dream party officials stifle independent media by bringing 11 identical Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participations (SLAPP) cases against Mtavari. Laws have also been changed to force defendants to pay fines even during the appeal process. Other TV channels have also experienced this.

Despite this, Mtavari persists in its work. After all, the real Georgian Dream prioritizes press freedom.

Other Advocacy Efforts

Other international efforts for advocacy in Georgia must be maintained, including seeking and demanding the medical release of former President Mikheil Saakashvili.

Recent sanctions against four Georgian judges for corruption demonstrate that other effective mechanisms may include personal penalties on Ivanishvili and other violators.

In addition, advocates should continue efforts to add Gvaramia to the State Department’s #WithoutJustCause list.

Pre-emptive actions to preserve Georgian democracy must start with the country’s media landscape. If the proper steps are taken, Georgia will be an example in the ongoing ideological battle between free liberal democracies and nascent competitive authoritarianism.

For the well-being of Georgia’s citizens and regional democracy, Eastern Europe requires a free, safe, and just Georgia. If only Nika were free.

DISCLAIMER: McCain Institute is a nonpartisan organization that is part of Arizona State University. The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not represent an opinion of the McCain Institute.

Pedro Pizano, Luke Englebert, and Brad Singer
Publish Date
May 17, 2023