In the coming days EMC will address the court regarding the cases of the former head of Adjara Public Broadcasting News Service, Shorena Glonti, Deputy Chief Maia Merkviladze and news presenter Teona Bakuridze. Our main request is to invalidate the disciplinary actions and the dismissal and transfer of employees to other positions, and to reinstate the violated labor rights of the employees.

Prior to applying to the court, EMC is proposing a detailed legal assessment of problematic employment practices and political decisions made by the new management.

General overview of the context

As is well known to the public, in the last few weeks the new director of the Adjara Public Broadcasting has hampered and restricted working conditions for certain key staff members responsible for editorial policy, and in some cases has even fired staff members. On February 2nd, 2020, due to the limitations placed on her contractual duties, and following her experience of some severe incidents of workplace harassment and control, Natia Zoidze, Deputy Broadcasting Director, left the broadcasting service. Following the alterations made to the staff list and deliberate structural changes made by the Advisory Board in violation of the procedures and public administration guidelines, on February 19th, 2020, Maia Merkviladze was transferred from the position of Deputy Chief of the Information Department, with responsibility for News Editorial, to the Radio Broadcasting Service. On February 28th, 2020, the director dismissed Shorena Glonti from the position of head of the News Service after an arbitrary and groundless disciplinary persecution. On March 6th, 2020, the Director, without adhering to disciplinary rules and procedures, temporarily suspended Chief News Presenter Teona Bakuridze from performing her contractual obligations, and took her off air.

The above decisions, which were applied to those in the editorial team with a critical attitude towards the senior staff and the new management, show obvious indications that editorial independence is being compromised and that the broadcasting service is being heavily controlled. Additionally, there are instances of gross violations of labor rights. Such a hostile working environment and the series of unfair decisions made by the management of the broadcasting service provoked a reasonable degree of anxiety among journalists and staff over the danger of extending the practice of intervention into editorial policy and the filtering out of independent staff in the future, which will eventually lead to governmental control over the broadcasting service.

The dynamics and contexts of the events that have developed in the broadcasting service since spring 2019, including the groundless impeachment of Natia Kapanadze, the problematic rules and procedures of electing Giorgi Kokhreidze, preceded by Bidzina Ivanishvili's critical statements regarding the Adjara Public Broadcasting Service, show that the government is trying to gain full control over the broadcasting service, and aims to weaken the critical thinking and independence of this media space. The weakening of the independence of the broadcasting service will wipe out the open, critical social space that the Adjara Broadcasting service created recently, and which has become the means for socially disadvantaged and oppressed social groups to represent their needs, concerns and interests, and which makes their voices heard.

It is clear that the processes taking place in the Adjara Broadcasting Service should be seen in the context of the wider political environment, where it is obvious that it is in the government's interest to weaken critically minded political and media groups as a means of maintaining its own power, and to take control over them.

In this statement, EMC presents the preliminary evaluation of the cases of Maia Merkviladze, Shorena Glonti and Teona Bakuridze - the subjects of illegal labor decisions.

We are defending the labor rights and freedom of expression of all the above mentioned individuals in court, and we are also providing legal support to the alternative trade union of Adjara Public Broadcasting Adjara TV and Radio in a collective dispute.

  • The case of Maia Merkviladze, Deputy Head of the Public Broadcasting News Service

Maia Merkviladze occupied the position of Deputy Head of News Service (editorial division) for Adjara Broadcasting Television and Radio since 2017. From February 24th, 2020, the new APB Director initiated a new Staff Schedule, which no longer took into account the position of Deputy Chiefs of Department and replaced the position with the position of "Editor". The job descriptions of the editor and deputy head are identical and cover substantially similar responsibilities.

The change applied to the deputy heads of several departments, however, among other deputy heads of departments, Maia Merkviladze was the only exception who was not offered the newly created position of editor by the director. Instead, she was offered a fundamentally different position - the auxiliary position of "Radio News Editor", which would significantly reduce her standing and worsen her protection guarantees.

EMC reckons that both actions: the decision to alter the staff list and ordering Maia Merkviladze to become the radio news editor are legally unjustified and the decision is indubitably, unquestionably wrong.

The case file analysis shows that the need for the staff changes initiated by Giorgi Kokhreidze and approved by the Board of Governors was not substantiated at any stage of the review. Moreover, the staff of the broadcaster were not informed about the changes in the list.

According to the Labor Code, one’s dismissal from a position on the grounds of the abolition of the said position, may be caused by economic circumstances, technological or organizational changes that necessitate a reduction in employment. However, in order to prevent reorganization from becoming a secret tool for the arbitrary dismissal of employees, it is necessary to have a real, organizational change springing from such necessities. According to the Court's established practice, reorganization is unlawful if it introduces new structural units that differ in formal terms, yet have substantially the same function as their predecessors.

The employer’s inability to continue employing Maia Merkviladze in her usual position was ostensibly justified by the abolition of that position. In this case, however, it is clear that the list of staff positions was deceptive, as management introduced new positions, albeit with the same competencies and duties, but only Maia Merkviladze was not offered an editorial position that was functionally close to her former position, and which included the duties and competencies described in her current job description. This assertion is further supported by the fact that the person appointed to Maia Merkviladze’s position is still referred to, to the present day, as 'Acting Deputy Chief'. In these circumstances, it is obvious that the process was used for personally pushing aside Maia Merkviladze.

Obviously, the changes aimed at maximizing Maia Merkviladze's distance from the news service. This explains why she is no longer an editor of television, but of radio, which is technically located in another building and space.

  • The case of Shorena Glonti, Head of the Broadcasting News Service

Shorena Glonti was dismissed from her position on February 28th of this year on the charge of "gross disciplinary misconduct." The dismissal was preceded by renewed disciplinary proceedings following the appointment of new director Giorgi Kokhreidze, which began on the basis of a report submitted by Tamila Dolidze, a member of the Board of Governors. The decree of Shorena Glonti's dismissal shows that the actual basis for her dismissal was a TV show made by her in February last year under a contract signed between her and NDI. The director claimed that in the preparation of the controversial program, the authorities and the financial department of the broadcasting service were bypassed, and that Shorena Glonti made a private financial profit.

According to our initial assessment, the issued decree is problematic in several respects, including the issue of misconduct, the violation of disciplinary proceedings and rules in the case, and the fact that the sanction applied does not meet the principles of proportionality and reasonableness.

The mechanism of disciplinary action often becomes a tool of arbitrariness, control and exploitation of the employee in the hands of the employer. Given the disproportionate relationship between employer and employee, there is a high risk that these mechanisms may be used to control and persecute the employee, which makes it even more important to adhere to disciplinary proceedings, procedures, and decisions, under a strict legal control.

When an employee is dismissed as a result of disciplinary proceedings, it is essential to assess the legality of the dismissal. The employer carries the burden of proving that the employee breached a law, contractual obligation or some other, internal regulations which justify the dismissal.

A key problem in the case of Shorena Glonti is that the disciplinary order issued is not substantiated or properly argued. The employer cannot substantiate the content of the breach by Shorena Glonti and fails to refer to the relevant legal grounds. As the disputed agreement was endorsed by the administration at the time, all authorized persons were informed of it and all actions to comply with the agreement, including the payment of appropriate remuneration to all those involved in the preparation of the program, had taken place with the endorsement of the administration. It is not clear why the management is now disputing this decision against Shorena Glonti..

In assessing the supposedly controversial act itself, it is significant that the case was not thoroughly investigated or evaluated. It is noteworthy that the decision was made on the basis of explanations from several heads of departments, and Shorena Glonti's involvement was very limited, which prevented her from effectively and realistically protecting her own interests.

There is also a problem of disciplinary persecution. According to the internal regulations of the broadcasting service, the administration was obliged to establish and impose a disciplinary sanction on Shorena Glonti within one month from the occurrence of the alleged breach. It is noteworthy that the factual dismissal of Shorena Glonti was also one of the grounds for impeachment of the former director of the broadcaster, hence the APB administration had been obliged to conduct disciplinary proceedings from that period, although this issue was deliberately stalled by the new management and used later as a reason for the persecution and oppression of Shorena Glonti.

It must be said that the decision taken does not comply with the principle of proportionality, which means that in the event of a breach it would require an adequate and just penalty. Although the rules of procedure in the broadcasting service recognize some forms of disciplinary punishment, the most stringent measure of disciplinary liability has been unjustifiably applied by the administration to Shorena Glonti, which contradicts legislation and established practice.

  • The Case of Teona Bakuridze, Presenter/ Reporter of the Broadcasting News Service

The disciplinary persecution of this reporter for the Adjara Broadcasting Television and Radio News Service began on March 6th and ended within a few hours of the decision for her to leave temporarily the TV department.

According to the order, Teona Bakuridze was disobedient, and did not take her working responsibilities seriously. In particular, she was applying inappropriate psychological pressure to G. Abazadze (Acting Head of News Service) eventually forcing him to resign from his position. Accordingly, Teona Bakuridze, by the order of the Director, was temporarily suspended from carrying out specific activities prescribed by her employment contract and was temporarily taken off air until the end of the disciplinary assessment.

In the case of the violation of labor regulations, the Adjara Broadcasting service’s Internal Regulations provide disciplinary sanctions that may be applied to the employee (warning, reprimand, deduction of salary, dismissal). In addition, the Rules of Procedure provide a disciplinary sanction under which, in exceptional cases, the director may restrict an employee's access to performing a particular activity.

According to the EMC, the order issued by the director is clearly illegal and groundless. The disciplinary proceedings initiated against Teona Bakuridze, in which the proper participation of the party under scrutiny was not ensured, were clearly violated. Being excluded from participation in the process, Teona Bakuridze was not allowed to act in her own interests and to respond to accusations against her, to present her views and evidence, to establish certain circumstances, to establish her position through witnesses, etc.

Apart from the procedural failure, the blurriness of the content of the infringement and the lack of evidence in the case are also significant. The order issued by the director of the broadcasting service accuses Teona Bakuridze of being disobedient, underperforming, pressurizing a colleague superior to her (Head of News Service) and coercion, though without concrete evidence. In addition to the ungrounded allegations, it should be noted that Teona Bakuridze did not commit any of these alleged acts, but rather fulfilled all the obligations imposed on her, and despite the unjustified and unexpected decision to dismiss her from her job she never failed to fulfil her responsibilities, including presenting a 8-hour TV program on the day of her suspension.

It is worth emphasising that disciplinary action must in its substance have a preventive effect upon the violation, so that it can eliminate or minimize the risks of such harm coming from an offender. However, it is clear in this case that Teona Bakuridze's removal from the television screen without specifying a specific deadline would not address the risk of repeated violations indicated in the order. This again reinforces the legitimate suspicion that Teona Bakuridze's exclusion from the television screen has the hidden purpose of silencing her critical thinking about the ongoing processes in the broadcasting service.

Requirements

A legal analysis of the labor cases of Maia Merkviladze, Shorena Glonti and Teona Bakuridze shows that these decisions were made by management in a substantial and blatant violation of the law, implying arbitrary interference and encroachment on the part of the employer in the internal editorial process.

EMC plans to appeal to the Batumi City Court within the civil dispute during the next few days and to request the annulment of the decisions made against Maia Merkviladze, Shorena Glonti and Teona Bakuridze and that Maia Merkviladze and Shorena Glonti should resume their former positions at the broadcaster. At the same time, in the case of Teona Bakuridze, we demand the immediate suspension of the measure for the temporary suspension of her duties until the decision against her is annulled. Besides, the appeal has already been submitted to the court, and we will continue to review it to work for the annulment of the decision of the Advisory Board to redefine the staff list, and in this case we will also request, before the decision of the court is announced, that the court suspend the decision so that the appeal can proceed.

The EMC will periodically provide the public with updated information on the progress of each case.

EMC expresses its solidarity with the journalists and employees of Adjara Broadcasting and expresses its willingness to further assist the APB employees in their fight for labor rights, freedom of expression and editorial independence.