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BBC: Protests in Georgia over government threat to TV station

Thousands of people have staged a rally in Georgia to protest against the government's alleged attempts to close the country's most popular TV station. Protesters gathered outside the offices of Rustavi 2, which has been locked in a dispute with authorities. They accuse the government of attempting to stifle media freedom.

Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili warned that he would respond sternly to any potential breaches of the law at the rally.

Some demonstrators held up placards reading "Hands off Rustavi 2 TV" and "Rustavi 2 belongs to the people".

Rustavi 2 has been locked in an ongoing ownership tussle since August, sparking fears that the ruling Georgian Dream coalition could compromise the independence of the channel by interfering.

Over the summer, a court froze the broadcaster's assets after a businessman close to the coalition filed a lawsuit to claim control.

Government critics and the channel's owners say the planned closure of the station is part of a campaign to silence the press ahead of next year's parliamentary elections.

"The government has decided to hand Rustavi 2 ownership over to a man under its control and that will amount to a closure of the country's most influential TV channel," Rustavi 2's deputy director, Zaal Udumashvili, told AFP.

"That will put an end to media pluralism in Georgia and threaten the very existence of Georgian democracy," he added.

On Wednesday, the channel's director Nika Gvaramia said a government middleman had threatened to release secretly-recorded videos showing what he described as his "private life" in an attempt to force him to resign.

The office of Georgia's prosecutor general has launched a probe into his claims.

Founded in 1994, Rustavi 2 TV is Georgia's biggest and most popular television station.