Levan Avalishvili is a Co-founder and the Chairman of the Board at the Institute for Development of Freedom of Information (IDFI). Levan Avalisvhili is an author and co-author of a number of publications and researches regarding open governance. He currently pursues his PHD in Humanities.
Open and Democratic Governance in Georgia – Challenges on the path of European Integration
Signature of the Association Agreement between Georgia and the EU has once more highlighted the irreversible goal of the Georgian society towards the European integration. On this path Georgia has seen quite tough political as well as socio-economic problems. Different Governments in office have implemented considerable number of reforms, modernized financial institutions and the civil service, initiated process harmonization of Georgian legislation with the EU regulations and made a breakthrough in fight against corruption. At the same time it should be emphasized that strong will of the Georgian people and aspiration to establishing democratic governance in Georgia has been solid foundation for all these changes or reforms. With signature of the Association Agreement Georgia has once more shown its strong adherence to common values of democratic counties, such as good governance, rule of law, protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms and that the country has made a commitment to continue steady establishment of these values in Georgia.
Nowadays it is impossible to imagine democratic governance without freedom of information. Freedom of information for-mostly implies public accountability of the government, , ensuring access to information, transparency of government activities, openness of budget management and policy implementation, as well as promoting civic engagement in this process.
The right of access to information has history of 250 years. The first Freedom of Information Act was adopted in 1766 by the Kingdom of Sweden. The parliament of Sweden adopted the right to access to official documents by the initiative of Anders Hidenius, prominent public figure of Finnish descent. Since then transparency and citizens’ control of the government has become one of the main principles for the European countries and democratic societies.
Today, two centuries later, access to information has been recognized by international society as one of the fundamental human rights and it is of vitally significant for public opinion formation, for either personal or professional development of each individual as well as for existence of strong civil society. The idea that information held by state institutions is public good has been enshrined in various international legal acts, as well as national legislations. The number of countries which have adopted legislative acts ensuring access to information has nowadays outnumbered 100. The progress is substantial, considering that only 20 years ago, in the early 90s of the past century there existed only 13 countries with such legislation. Nevertheless, various countries and among them Georgia had to overcome complex and controversial stages before this widespread recognition of Freedom of Information.
In contrast with the European Countries, democratic institutions in Georgia do not have long history and tradition of existence. The overthrow of the first democratic government in Georgia by the Bolsheviks in 1921 resulted in 70 years of totalitarian regime, which has nipped in the bud any possibility of democratic development in our country. The repressions taking place during the entire Soviet period aimed at eliminating democratic, liberal and pro-western oriented elites of the society. In the 90s the process of obtaining independence coincided with tough socio-economic crisis, civil conflict and bloodshed. Despite these difficulties, Georgian society was irreversibly oriented towards establishing democratic governance in the country, which. has been strengthened by adoption of the Constitution in 1995. It should be emphasized that before adoption of the constitution, on May 3rd 1994 the Government of Georgia ratified the Covenant of the United Nations on Civil and Political Rights and undertook a number of commitments enshrined by the document, inter alia the obligation to ensure access to information held in public institutions, the principle later included in the Constitution of Georgia.
In 1999 after adoption of the General Administrative Code of Georgia the rules regulating freedom of information have been extended, as the whole Chapter 3 of the Code concerns access to information. This is when the history of right of access to public information held by public authorities has started in Georgia. The FOI principle has met many challenges at the very outset of its institutional development. One of the most important challenges was un-readiness of the Georgian society to effectively exercise this important leverage of democratic control after 70 years of one-party rule. Thus on the one hand, citizens lacked awareness of the importance of right to access to information and did not use it in practice, on the other hand the bureaucracy failed to duly exercise its responsibilities, either deliberately or un-deliberately.
Despite the existing problems the FOI chapter of the General Administrative Code has played an important and positive role in establishment of democratic governance in the country. The trainings implemented within public service with the support of international society have resulted in improved professional skills of the FOI officers, activities of the media and non-governmental organizations has created proper social pressure on the bureaucracy,, the case law developed by the judicial branch has contributed to institutional strengthening of access to information. As a result in 2012, based on the research conducted by leading international organizations, (Centre for Law and Democracy, Access Info Europe, International Budget Partnership) which covered 80 countries worldwide, has shown that Georgia was among the list of the countries, with effective functioning of FOI legislation been implemented (second position after New Zealand). Thus Georgia has left far behind such developed countries as France, Norway, the USA and etc.
Regardless of the abovementioned, it should be emphasized that the results of this international research do not duly reflect the existing reality in Georgia. The five-year experience of our organization, Institute for the Development of Freedom of Information –(IDFI) shows that there are still plenty of problems in regards to freedom of information in Georgia. Namely, out of 11886 FOI requests sent by us in 2010-2013 we received 306 refusals and 1426 incomplete responses, while 2748 requests were ignored. In our opinion this is the result of cumulative effect of the gaps in the legislation and the lack of political will. In Georgia, as in any other country freedom of information is confronted with the interests of the government to restrict the leverages of public control.
Nowadays the democratic countries worldwide have started to undertake new reforms aiming at establishment of higher standards of transparency and openness. E.g. in 2011 international initiative Open Government Partnership was launched. Its founding countries (the USA, Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, Norway, the Kingdom of Philippines, South Africa and the UK) have signed the Open Government Declaration and developed individual Action Plans for development of transparent and democratic governance. The member states of the partnership take a commitment to popularize the principle of transparency, ensure civic involvement in the decision making process , fight against corruption and aim at better governance by means of implementing the newest technological developments. One of the most important responsibilities, undertaken by the member countries of OGP, is to ensure access to information, including proactive disclosure of the information on spending of state budget as well as performing of public duties. The Government of Georgia has actively involved in the activities of the partnership and implemented a number of important reforms. Within the commitments undertaken in 2013 the standard of proactive disclosure and electronic request of public information was implemented in Georgia. The country has also taken obligation to present a new law on Freedom of Information by 2015. The law should aim at eliminating the existing problems and ensure effective implementation of new norms.
Regardless of the path that this new reform will follow, we can state without hesitation that the government has full support from civil society in the process of developing democratic governance in the country. We further believe that FOI reform will considerably assist to the process of Georgia’s European integration, because transparency, governmental accountability and civic involvement in decision making are main principles of the EU member states and are guaranteed by the Article 1st of the Association Agreement.
This opinion was published in third edition of Periodical Georgia's European Way. The edition was also shared on the website of the Office of the State Minister of Georgia on European and Euro-Atlantic Integration
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