TBILISI -- Georgia’s Rustavi-2 television station has fired several prominent journalists and producers, raising concerns by some critics that a former opposition media outlet could be muzzled.
Paata Salia, Rustavi-2’s general director, said the journalists were “in conflict with the interests” of the new owner and that they were openly negotiating with Nika Gvaramia, the station’s former director who is attempting to establish a rival TV station.
Those sacked include Nodar Meladze, Eka Kvesitadze, Giorgi Gabunia, Giorgi Laperashvili, and Nanuka Zhorzholiani.
Diana Jojua, host of Rustavi-2's main news program, Kurieri, later announced on air she was resigning from the station in protest. Her co-host, Mikheil Sesiashvili, also resigned.
"The entire time we worked here, there have been crises and compromises, but we had freedom,” Jojua told viewers.
“Today, there is none of it left at Rustavi-2. We are leaving the channel and will continue our fight for freedom. See you in another space and on another channel," she added, in a possible reference to the Mtavari Arkhi (Main Channel) station Gvaramia is launching.
Critics have said new owner Kibar Khalvashi is tied closely to the current government and that his actions over the television station -- formerly an outspoken opposition voice -- are an attempt by the administration to stifle political dissent in the media ahead of parliamentary polls scheduled for next year.
“This decision clearly proves that the editorial direction [of the station] will change and that Paata Salia’s promise that nothing would change is not valid," Nata Dzvelishvili, executive director of the Georgian Charter of Journalistic Ethics, told RFE/RL.
"Starting from September, Rustavi-2...news programs will change their content. Sadly, we will have one more pro-government channel -- loyal to the politics of the government,” Dzvelishvili added.
Khalvashi, however, has vowed to make the former opposition station independent, both politically and financially.
Meladze, the chief of Rustavi-2’s news service, said he had been approached by representatives of billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili and was told he could keep his job if he would “tone down the temperature and the level of criticism” of Rustavi-2. He said he refused the offer.
Ivanishvili is the leader of the ruling Georgian Dream party and a former prime minister.
In July, Gabunia, who was also sacked, was suspended for two months over obscenity-strewn remarks against Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Gabunia’s comments, made during a news analysis program called Postscript, were condemned as a "provocation" by Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili and Tbilisi Mayor Kakha Kaladze, as well as Russia's Foreign Ministry.
Gabunia's rant against Putin came at one of the most tense periods in relations between Russia and Georgia since they fought a five-day war in 2008 and included several nights of anti-Russian protests in the capital. Some leaders at the time said they feared Gabunia's remarks could provoke actions against the country by Russia.
The latest developments come a month after the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) upheld a March 2017 verdict by Georgia's Supreme Court on restoring the ownership of Rustavi-2 to Khalvashi, who claimed he had been forced out of his ownership of the station by the previous government.
Following the ECHR ruling, Georgia's Public Registry transferred the ownership of Rustavi-2 to Khalvashi, who immediately fired Gvaramia, the general director seen being close to Georgia's opposition United National Movement party.