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Georgia Suspends Ownership Change For Independent TV After European Court Ruling

The initial court ruling was criticized as an attempt to muzzle the media, since Rustavi-2 has been known for reports that are critical of the government.

Georgia has suspended a ruling from its highest domestic court that had placed the country's largest independent television station under the control of a close ally of the government.

The government's move came in response to an order from the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).

Georgia's Supreme Court late on March 2 ordered broadcaster Rustavi-2 TV returned to its former co-owner, businessman Kibar Khalvashi.

But the move was criticized as an attempt to muzzle the media, since Rustavi-2 has been known for reports that are critical of the government.

Lawyers for Rustavi-2 TV challenged the ruling at the European Court of Human Rights, which on March 3 ordered its suspension.

Demonstrators who had been protesting the Supreme Court's ruling were cheering on the streets of Tbilisi after the head of Rustavi-2 TV, Nika Gvaramia, announced the ECHR's decision.

"We will follow this procedure," Justice Minister Tea Tsulukiani told the media. Tsulukiani said the Strasbourg-based court had also instructed the government to abstain "from interfering with the broadcaster's editorial policy in any manner."

Tsulukiani said the ECHR's interim measure was in force until March 8, when it would further analyze the case.

Officials have accused Rustavi-2 TV of bias, while government critics voiced concern that Khalvashi, who is a close supporter of the ruling Georgian Dream party -- will muzzle the only strong media voice critical of the government.

The critics say billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, who founded Georgian Dream and served as prime minister for a year, was behind the court's ruling.

President Giorgi Margvelashvili, who is at odds with Georgian Dream, on March 3 also criticized the ownership change.

"The international community perceives the process...not as a court case, but as a political process, which impacts media freedom and the pluralistic environment in Georgia," he said in a televised statement.

The TV station has been fighting court battles in Georgia since August 2015, when a lower court ruled in favor of Khalvashi, who argued that Georgian authorities under former President Mikheil Saakashvili had forced him to sell the station at an undervalued price.

Georgian Dream defeated Saakashvili's party in an election in 2012 and cemented its political control in another ballot in October 2016.

Georgia is one of 47 members of the ECHR, which was established in 1959 and bases its rulings on the European Convention on Human Rights of 1950.

With reporting by Reuters