On December 15, 2017, the Parliament of Georgia adopted new constitutional amendments with the second hearing. The amendments were initially aimed at incorporating critical remarks issued by the Venice Commission on a number of specific provisions. However, changes were made to additional provisions as well, including those on access to public information.
The amendment was initiated by the Ministry of Justice and would significantly lower the constitutional standard of access to public information. The Venice Commission had previously reviewed these provisions and not issued any negative comments. The Ministry also did not criticize this article in the spring of 2017, when the constitutional reform was ongoing.
Following parliamentary discussions and strong public outrage, the Parliament did not fully accept the Ministry’s proposal and adopted a different wording. According to the Speaker of Parliament, the proposal was turned down because it set a lower constitutional standard. Instead, the provision was changed to specify the grounds for restricting the right to access to public information, which were already set elsewhere in the legislation, on the constitutional level.
Constitutional amendments adopted by the second hearing provide a better definition of a state secret and specify the grounds for when public information may be withheld for the purpose of protecting state secrets. These are state security, public safety and litigation interests. While these grounds, upon good faith interpretation, may be considered legitimate for restricting access to public information, we hope that their inclusion in the Constitution does not create a future risk of excessive, disproportionate restriction of the right at the legislative level.
The amendment that was finally adopted by the Parliament is ultimately less dangerous than its original version proposed by the Ministry of Justice, which envisioned much more general and broad grounds for restricting access to public information. More specifically, the Ministry proposed adding confidentiality as a basis for restricting access, which, we believe, is a vague and unforeseeable term that would extend the scope of restriction of access to public information in practice, and therefore significantly damage the development of democratic processes in the country.
Parliamentary discussions were also accompanied by procedural problems. Even though civil society representatives did have the opportunity to express their opinion during parliamentary committee discussions, the accelerated pace of adopting changes and introducing new issues made it extremely difficult to hold substantiated discussions on important issues.
State bodies must assume greater responsibility when examining the country’s Constitution and must not allow for future constitutional amendments to be elaborated and adopted in such accelerated manner.
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