Tbilisi City Court Partially Satisfies Tbilisi City Mayor's Defamation Claim

On November 30, 2022, Tbilisi City Court Civil Cases Collegiate Judge, partially satisfied Kakha Kaladze's claim against the TV broadcaster "Pirveli" and its journalist Maya Mamulashvili and jointly ordered the defendants to pay moral damages in the amount of 15,000 GEL.

In his claim, the mayor of Tbilisi contested the statements made on the live broadcast, in connection with the purchase of municipal buses purchased by Tbilisi City Hall at a much higher price than purchased by other countries, and the alleged link with the said circumstance with the mayor of Tbilisi, Mr. Kaladze found these statements were defamatory. Through the court, he asked the defendants to deny these reports and pay moral damages in the amount of 100,000 GEL.

The defendants pointed out that the on-air comment was made following an active public and media discussion about the circumstances that led to the purchase of buses by Tbilisi City Hall at a higher price than those purchased by other countries. In addition, the journalist's opinion was based on publicly disseminated information and official sources, which stated that the Tbilisi City Hall overpaid for buses by approximately 60 million euros, and this raised legitimate doubts in public. Thus, according to the defendants, the disputed statements were conclusions and fair commentary based on sufficient factual circumstances, and for which they should not be held civilly liable.

Unfortunately, the court did not agree with this reasoning of the defendant and established that defamation had occurred.

In addition, during the court dispute, several additional fundamental problems came to light:

  • The judge showed special affinity to Tbilisi Mayor's claim and, unlike the general, long hearing practice in the court, he considered the case extraordinarily quickly, within a tight time frame, in only 5 months from the filing of the claim by the plaintiff. It is noteworthy that a similar trend can be observed in the cases of appeals to the court by other persons affiliated with the government;

  • Although the burden of proof falls on the plaintiff in a case of a defamation lawsuit, the party did not present any evidence that would confirm the defamatory nature of the statements. Plaintiff has not met the lowest minimum standard and has not provided a criminal record or notice that he is not being prosecuted for the alleged issue (presenting them would not be sufficient to prove that the information was false, however, the plaintiff did not meet this minimum standard/ did not even consider the standard)

  • The judge did not examine the evidence enough. Although the defendant presented several pieces of evidence in the case, which the party requested to be examined in court, the court hastily moved to the next stage without examining them;

  • The court did not consider the dangers caused by making such a decision. Among them, it ignored the fact that the claim was lodged by the mayor of Tbilisi, who has an obligation to be more tolerant of critical opinions aired in the media. In addition, we believe that the court should have focused on the statements of the plaintiff's representative, who actually admitted that the real purpose of the lawsuit was not to protect the honor and dignity of the plaintiff, but to protect the reputation of state institutions and authorities. And according to the current legislation, it is forbidden for defamation disputes to be related to protecting non-property rights of the state or administrative body.

The amount of the penalty imposed as compensation for moral damages is equally troubling. The court should be assessed disproportionately in relation to the damage that may have been suffered by the mayor of Tbilisi. Charging 15,000 GEL to the media in a case of such defamation is not reasonable. The claim is submitted by an official of a very high political position. The aired information refers to his performance of public functions. This judgment does not correspond to the practice established so far at the national or European level. It contributes to the "chilling effect" and thus to the strengthening of the fear in public: any criticism of the authorities can be subject to persecution and disproportionate financial penalties.

The critical statements made against the authorities and other influential persons related to it have repeatedly been the basis for the initiation of legal disputes. For example, eleven mayors (of Tskaltubo, Kutaisi, Kareli, Aspindza, Adigeni, Chiatura, Poti, Kvareli, Ninotsminda, Borjomi and Marneuli) filed lawsuits one after the other against the critical media outlet ("Mtavari TV") claiming to have suffered from defamation. Each filed a claim in the same time frame and each requested the same amount - 55,555  GEL for moral damages. 

This trend should be considered an abuse of the lawsuit mechanism aimed at the illegal restriction of freedom of speech and expression by intimidating civil society (so-called SLAPP lawsuits). Considering the tendency of government officials to file groundless claims, today’s decision creates an alarming precedent, since there is an expectation that the claims of authorities will turn the freedom of speech and expression into an object of justice and that this trend will only speed up, which will essentially hinder the activities of media and create a "chilling effect" on free speech and for freedom of expression.

GDI represents the interests of TV broadcaster "Pirveli" and journalist Maya Mamulashvili in court. GDI is able to provide legal aid with the support from the USAID’s Rule of Law Program.