Two weeks ago I decided to express in writing my humble personal opinion on the practice of freedom of information in Georgia. I did not actually have to think a lot, and why should have I anyways? As this year only I’ve witnessed so many problems and strange things about freedom of information that I concluded – getting information freely in Georgia is one big labyrinth. Therefore, if you manage to get the information you have requested completely and within the period of time prescribed by law, you are truly lucky.
I remember that in a not so distant past, some of the public agencies could refuse to provide requested information only because that they were unaware of the obligation. There was another category of public agencies that were well-aware of the obligation but did not think it was necessary to provide requested public information. But it was a big deal if you pursued administrative or judicial action for the refusal, and gradually precedents here and there created by ordering public agencies to act, grew into a common practice.
After public agencies adapted to the practice and to the obligations provided by the General Administrative Code of Georgia, problems that existed before were somehow transformed. For example, wrongful and out of context interpretation of legal norms became common. Failure to provide requested public information within the terms prescribed by law has long been a tradition. Therefore, it is a great success if you receive information that you have requested within the period of ten days. I am not saying anything about “immediate” provision of information, as I don’t remember when was the last time it was fulfilled in practice.
Certainly, there are still cases when information that you have requested is not the information provided or even worse, information is not provided at all. Frequently, public agencies provide incomplete information.
Besides certain exceptions, the mechanism for appealing does not work effectively, whereas if you’ve been honored by giving an opportunity to present oral arguments in administrative proceedings, a public agency representative may explain the failure to provide information you have requested by saying: “I don’t know, I was too lazy to do it”, or “it is a secret”, or “we are searching for the information”, whereas mostly requested public information does not need to be searched for, neither does it fall under the category of secret information.
Judicial authority is another issue that’s worth mentioning in addition to failure of public agencies to provide public information. Looking at the Georgian justice system for over the years, I am trying to guess when the agency administering justice will order public agencies to provide requested public information when the latter requires obtaining and processing information from a different territorial subunit or other public agency or it consists of several unrelated pieces and is large in volume.
It is difficult to understand decisions delivered by court concerning freedom of information. When reading the motivation part of court’s decision, on the one hand you are concerned about how small it is and how it lacks substantiation, and on the other hand, you are unable to understand how on earth the court concluded that requested information indeed was not to be provided by the public agency concerned.
And lastly, even with Georgian labyrinth of freedom of information aside, free access to public information is as necessary for democracy as free media, independent judiciary, healthy election environment or human rights. Therefore, quality of freedom of information should be included among other important factors for measuring the level of democracy.
Sulkhan Saladze is a project lawyer for Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association currently working within the project “Promoting Transparency and Accountability in Georgia”.