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article imageGeorgia TV channel vows to fight back amid government pressure

By Irakli Metreveli (AFP)     Nov 6, 2015 in World

Staff at Georgia's most popular TV station on Friday promised to resist government pressure after a court ordered a change of management at the opposition channel.

The ruling ratcheted up tensions in the ex-Soviet country of 4.5 million, with rights groups accusing the government of seeking to muzzle critics and Western diplomats expressing concern.

A judge ordered late Thursday that top managers at the Rustavi-2 station be replaced by provisional administrators appointed by a businessman with apparently close ties to the government.

The channel's staff said they did not recognise the "illegal" ruling and would protect the broadcaster "physically", if necessary.

"We will not let the so-called new management enter our premises," the channel's star news anchor Zaal Udumashvili told AFP.

"We will defend Rustavi-2 physically, using all available legal means."

Several hundred supporters gathered outside the channel's offices Friday to express solidarity with the journalists.

The ruling came after a court earlier this week ordered a change of ownership at the station.

Kibar Khalvashi, a businessman with apparently close government ties, sold his controlling stake a decade ago and is now seeking to win back control of the network.

The ownership dispute has sparked fears in the West and among rights groups that the ruling Georgian Dream coalition could be seeking to clamp down on independent media ahead of parliamentary elections next year.

Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili has denied any government interference, but President Giorgi Margvelashvili -- who has strained relations with the premier -- said in a televised address to the nation that the affair is "negatively affecting both the internal situation in Georgia and the country's image abroad."

The court decision sparked a flurry of criticism.

"Editorial decisions should be made in news rooms, not court rooms," said the OSCE's media freedom representative Dunja Mijatovic.

"Attempts by the courts to unduly influence an editorial policy of a media outlet are nothing short of the abuse of the rule of law and democratic foundations in a society."

More than a dozen Georgian groups issued a statement blasting the "unlawful" ruling, saying it "fundamentally undermines freedom of media".

The channel's newly appointed managers have insisted they will not meddle in editorial policy.

But ambassadors in Tbilisi expressed concern, with a senior Western diplomat telling AFP he met with Georgian leaders Friday to say that his government was "shocked by the crackdown on independent media".

Last month, thousands of protesters rallied in Tbilisi against alleged government attempts to clamp down on Rustavi-2.

In recent months, several privately-owned channels have shut down popular talk shows and fired prominent journalists after coming under government criticism.

Last year, Rustavi-2's founder Erosi Kitsmarishvili was found dead in his car with a gunshot wound to the head, according to police.

He had claimed the government saw him as an obstacle to its alleged plan to seize control of the station.

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