Telavi, Georgia — Some 25 freedom of information advocates and practitioners from the Caucasus region convened on May 8-11, 2009, to compare the laws and the practices across the region and to outline some common strategies to strengthen the right of access in these countries. Organized by the National Security Archive together with its partners from Tbilisi State University, the workshop included participants from Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Russia, and the United States, and representatives of the leading FOI organizations in each country, meeting for two days of presentations and discussion in Telavi, and a session at the State Security Archive of Georgia in Tbilisi.
Among the participants were lawyers who had brought FOI cases, journalists who had to use FOI laws in their investigative work, and academics—both those who helped draft and promote the FOI laws and those who faced problems with access in their work in the archives. The workshop took place at a critical turning point—all the represented countries now have FOI laws, most recently the Russian Federation in January 2009, but implementation of the laws is facing more and more difficulties in each of the countries.
One of the most striking findings of the workshop was the commonality of problems experienced by FOI activists across the region and their eagerness to work together to address these problems. This theme—the need to develop a joint strategy and create a functioning network to share information and support each other in their efforts— came up repeatedly in the reports as well as the discussions outside the conference room.
While the Georgian FOI law was passed in 1999, Armenian in 2003, Azerbaijani in 2005, and Russian in 2009, and a lot of work on requesting and monitoring was done after the passage of the laws, the countries still lack a truly reliable implementation mechanism. In Azerbaijan, for example, the Parliament accepted practically all the recommendations made by the NGOs, which resulted in a much improved law, but since then not much progress has been achieved in terms of real openness of government information.
The workshop discussion also illuminated the common legacy of the Soviet past in the represented countries, where citizens never had the right of access, and where the right of the government to control information still lingers in the public mind. As several speakers noted—most citizens do not know that the FOI laws even exist, and even many local governments are unaware of the legal requirements. This legacy creates an especially daunting challenge for implementation of the laws in the entire post-Soviet space, because before implementation, there needs to be an extensive educational work among citizens and government officials on the right to know.
Most participants described specific problems in implementation of the existing laws and regulations in each country. While the actual texts of the laws in the region are generally very good (better than the language in the proposed European convention, for example), actual implementation lags behind international standards. One important reason has been that citizens rarely go to court, even after having received arbitrary rejections of their requests. Some significant precedents exist in the region, however, for successful FOI litigation when requesters do go to court, as in a series of examples from Armenia. In Azerbaijan, the situation with implementation is similarly episodic, but the courts seem to be less favorable to FOI cases. Even though the law in Azerbaijan provides for criminal as well as administrative responsibility for refusing to provide information, in reality, there has never been a court decision that applied criminal responsibility in FOI cases.
Among other issues, participants discussed the impact of NGOs at the stage of drafting and passing of FOI laws. In Russia, extensive legal and educational work was carried out by NGOs in the last three years, and their public letter-writing campaign demanding passage of the law in the final stage of its consideration by the Duma resulted in a much improved final bill. In Armenia, the law was passed after an active grass-roots campaign, and Georgia was the first country in the Caucasus where the legislature responded to civil society pressure to pass the law in 1999.
One surprise from the workshop was to find that participants had made so many similar concerted efforts that contributed to the passage of the laws in each country, but had rarely, if ever, met each other before, even within each country but certainly across the region. In effect, their organizations had largely faced their countries’ problems in an isolated way, without cooperation across borders.
In their current work, speakers at the workshop discussed the relationship between FOI groups and government agencies. The best approach, according to both the Georgian and the Russian delegations, was a combination of direct challenge and cooperation—“making ourselves useful to bureaucrats”—such as giving concrete recommendations that would help agencies comply with government requirements on publishing their information on websites. All participants agreed on the need to engage in educational work among FOI officials and that at the same time, lack of compliance should be addressed in lawsuits.
The need for more and regular training was put forward as a major goal of ongoing work. Participants noted that although some training has been done in the Caucasus, but more was necessary. All agreed that it would be best if training programs involved lawyers and journalists together at a minimum, but ideally also judges, government officials in charge of FOI implementation and academics. Such training workshops could be organized in each country on a regular basis, and periodically could bring participants from the entire region.
At the concluding “brainstorming” session of the conference, participants once again emphasized the need to pull their skills and efforts together and to share information about specific cases. The Georgian delegation expressed their intention to organize a freedom of information NGO for Georgia followed by a regional center for the Caucasus modeled after St. Petersburg’s Institute for Freedom Information Development. Other important initiatives included establishing a formal network with a website for the participants of this workshop where they could engage in on-line discussion of issues and practices. The organizers also decided that all presentations of this workshop and its concluding document will be published in two forthcoming issues of the Georgian Archival Bulletin.
On the last day of the workshop, the participants visited the State Security Archive of the Republic of Georgia where they had a unique chance to see and work with documents from the Soviet period, especially from the 1930s through the 1980s. The State Security Archive of Georgia has combined three former central archives—the Presidential Archive, the KGB Archive, and the Archive of the Ministry of Interior. Our Georgian partners literally saved the documents from destruction from flood and fire, and pulled them together into a modern storage facility through a heroic effort. After ensuring physical safety of the documents, the archivists digitized the collections and opened them to the public.
The workshop participants concluded that the Georgian State Security Archive is an exemplar of openness and efficiency unrivaled throughout the former Soviet space. The leadership of the Archive gave a presentation for the participants on the existing collections and on the history of preservation of the documents, and invited all the members of the workshop to come back to work at the archive.
The workshop ended on a high note of realization of the common mission expressed by all the participants to engage in collaborative work to defend and promote freedom of information in the Caucasus and Russia. The participants agreed to keep this network functioning by creating the website and organizing regular events to review our work and develop common strategy to address implementation problems across the region.
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