[This article was updated on July 22, 2010 to correct the spelling of Ana Natsvlishvili's last name.]
A new amendment to Georgia’s freedom of information law is introducing strict limits on “third-party” access to information about cases involving the Georgian government in international courts. Civil society watchdogs term the change a setback for the country’s democratic development. The amendment’s sponsor, however, contends that the change reflects international standards.
Prior to the amendment, Georgian law stipulated that all information in administrative cases remain public; exceptions to the freedom of information (FIO) law included commercial and professional secrets, criminal cases and covert operations.
The amendment, passed on July 21, will require journalists, human rights activists and others not directly involved in an international court case to apply to a Georgian court for the release of any details about the case. The fact that the case itself had been filed in an international court would remain accessible.
The change has sparked outrage from two organizations that monitor judicial reform and human rights in Georgia. The amendment marks the first time the government has restricted the country’s FIO legislation since the 2003 Rose Revolution, commented Tamar Gurchiani, a lawyer with the Georgian Young Lawyers Association (GYLA).
“This is the worst step that could ever be made,” commented Gurchiani, who termed the measure a violation of the constitutional right to information. “That is the closing of information in advance, without any discussion.”
Parliamentary Legal Affairs Committee Deputy Chairperson Lasha Tordia, who drafted the legislation, argues that the changes are in line with international court procedures and will not obstruct the flow of information to the public. The government had decided to amend the law based on “requirements” from the Paris-based International Court of Arbitration, he contended.
The Court “required that some part” of information in cases between the Georgian government and private companies be kept “private” because discrepancies between Georgian law and the Court’s requirements were causing “concrete” problems in cases involving the government, Tordia claimed.
Contacted by EurasiaNet.org, Sylvie Picard Renaut, a lawyer at the International Court of Arbitration, responded that the organization may "lobby" to promote arbitration, but does not have any leverage over countries’ policy-making.
Tordia did not detail the cases or complaints in question, and referred questions to the Ministry of Justice. A ministry spokesperson had earlier directed EurasiaNet.org to parliament for information about the proposed amendment.
The amendment wouldn’t just potentially impact cases in the International Court of Arbitration. Several cases against the Georgian government are pending in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg and elsewhere; arguably the most prominent within Georgia is the 2006 slaying of banker Sandro Girgvliani by four Ministry of Internal Affairs officers. The case had a public hearing at the European Court of Human Rights this April; a ruling has not yet been issued.
“In [the] Georgian context, considering the general situation, I would say this is another restrictive law which limits the possibilities of NGOs, lawyers and the general public to discuss the issues which are of public importance,” said Ana Natsvlishvili, a lawyer at Tbilisi’s pro-opposition Human Rights Center.
A representative of the US democratization watchdog Freedom House echoed that concern.
“In general, adding exceptions to FOI laws does weaken them and, as such, is a threat to media freedom,” Freedom House senior researcher Karin Deutsch Karlekar, the managing editor of the organization’s Freedom of the Press Index, wrote in an email interview with EurasiaNet.org. “This has occurred in recent years in the United States, as well as in a number of other media environments. So local activists are right to be concerned.”
Tordia, a member of the governing United National Movement, maintains that the amendment is in keeping with citizens’ right to information since the public will be able to seek access to documents via the Georgian courts. “If the courts require the information to be public, it will be,” he said. “Otherwise, it will be closed.”
Natsvlishvili and GYLA’s Gurchiani counter that Georgian courts’ pro-government sympathies will predispose them to rule against petitioners. Both worry that the amendment’s restriction about releasing information concerning “activities related” to international cases could be interpreted broadly to pertain to domestic cases as well. Tordia responded with a shrug when asked about this interpretation of the amendment.
In his February 2010 state-of-the-country speech to parliament, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili disputed the notion that the government still exerted a controlling influence over Georgia’s courts. He declared that years of reform have made Georgian courts “more effective” and independent. “[W]e have done what we said we would do,” he said.
Molly Corso is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi.