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Georgia's Supreme Court Rules Against Independent Broadcaster in Ownership Battle

FILE - Protesters carry Georgian flags and a poster showing a caricature of former Prime Minister billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili during a march in support of Rustavi 2 TV channel in Tbilisi, Georgia, Feb. 10, 2017.

Georgia's Supreme Court on Thursday ordered a change of ownership at the biggest independent TV station Rustavi 2, in a move critics say is an attempt to silence the media.

Hundreds of viewers, opposition politicians and supporters of Rustavi 2 rallied outside the court and moved to the broadcaster's studio building in a gesture of support after the ruling was announced.

The TV station has been fighting court battles since August 2015 when a court found in favor of former co-owner Kibar Khalvashi and ordered the seizure of its property and later the seizure of shares in the company that owns Rustavi 2.

Government officials have accused the popular TV station of bias. Critics fear Khalvashi will silence the only strong media voice critical of the government in Georgia.

Khalvashi says he was forced to give up his shares under the government of former president Mikheil Saakashvili, whose party lost an election in 2012, and he wanted them back.

The Supreme Court ordered a change of owner at Rustavi 2 and Khalvashi, co-owner from 2004 to 2006, got back his controlling stake.

Opposition politicians and many independent experts say the case is an attempt to silence independent media in the country of 3.7 million. Foreign diplomats have also voiced concern.

Government officials have denied involvement in the case.

The broadcaster's director general condemned the decision as illegal and politically motivated.

"We have witnessed defeat of democracy, defeat of justice and defeat of freedom of speech," Nika Gvaramia said during a live talk-show at Rustavi 2.

"You deprived the Georgian people of Rustavi 2, but we will be defending freedom of speech until the end," said Diana Jojua, one of the broadcaster's anchors.