The Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili has decided to make his people pay for accessing public documents.
Like in most Western countries, Georgia has a law guaranteeing citizens free and unfettered access to public information. But now the leader has made it a little bit harder for people to find out about just what authorities are up to.
The reason they can do this is that the right to free, as in unpaid, access to information only applies to state institutions, not their subsidiaries. Seizing on this opportunity, the Georgian president has simply decided to create a new archive under his Ministry of Internal Affairs (MIA), technically, a private archive.
Going by the country’s laws when it comes to such private subsidiaries of state bodies, the new arhcive’s services should require payment. Therefore getting access to the ministry’s documents will be a paid service.
Gia Tsagareishvili, Free Democrats parliamentarian and chairman of the newly formed faction Unity for Justice, thinks the reason the president made such a decision is to make it harder for people to get access to information.
“Firstly, it is not defined why the new archive will be set up as an independent agency, when there already exists a National Archive and documentation of a certain importance should be kept here. But if we foresee the fact that the Interior Ministry’s Archive will be given legal status of public law, than the documentation of the Ministry won’t be accessible for everyone, because services are really expensive. And believe me, important documents will be priced as high as possible. I think it is a violation of people’s rights,” Gia Tsagareishvili claims.
Saakashvili issued the archive decree back in September, and parliament has come as far as deciding on prices of this office’s services and has adopted a bill at the third hearing.
Experts think it’s not immediately clear that the authorities can define the new archive as private, thereby dodging the freedom of information requirement.
To what degree is it really a private archive? The president’s decree says that MIA archive will be an independent body, which ‘acquires rights and obligations on its name; makes deals with individuals and legal persons, is on its behalf in the relationship with third part, also the defendant and plaintiff in court.’
But the decree also states that the archive is headed by a person appointed by the Interior Minister and that the structure is subject to the ministry’s control.
Another question is what the exact purpose of this archive is. The decree states that its purpose is the description, preservation and maintenance of all the documents at the ministry; also carrying out of all functions which are related to the storage and use of archive material in general.
But it is not immediately clear to outsiders why the archive is to be divided into four structural units: a) First section, called the National Security Archive; b) second section, the Archive of the Communist Party’s Central Committee; c) third, the editorial section ; d) fourth is the Finance and Logistics Securing Group. All four sections have its different functions, and the first section, the National Security Archive, shall provide access to material for people who are interested.
We have been unable to find anyone to explain the implications of the paid service, but the bill passed by parliament defines the terms of fee payment as well as fee rates, its way of payment and rules for how to get a refund or exemption.
Citizens who want to read something stored by the ministry must in any event first show up at the archive and fill in an application. They must then pay the fee before they get their hands on the document. The payment must be paid into the archive’s bank account either when applying, or at the latest, when coming back to pick up the document who knows how much later.
The fees will vary from 3 to 177 Georgian lari, according to the new law. Only the Interior Minister himself can decide that someone is to be exempt from paying.
The service will also include ‘usage of documents filed in archive; informational service; services for scientific-technical processing and evaluation, on based on agreement.’
In addition, the archive will have the right to ‘carry out work not envisaged by this law, also carry to out studies of especially important or valueable documents, for which price is to be decided according to special agreement.’
Experts DFWatch have spoken to have a hard time figuring out what the new archive is all about. They don’t understand why such an archive is created, because there already exists a body with the same function: The National Archive, which is subsidiary organ of the Ministry of Justice. The experts are concerned with the fact that if it will be Interior Ministry’s Archive, then there should be gathered only documents from this ministry.
Clearly, authorities have a right to keep secret documents away from the public, but this is regulated separately.
If the new archive will only contain material from the Interior Ministry’s, then citizen’s shouldn’t have to pay for more than the price of the copies. This is regulated by law.
Georgian citizens have a constitutional right to freely receive information, including documentation in written form. Following this, information in the ministries and public institutions should be open and accessible to the public. The law states that a citizen only has to pay for the actual copies, not for the work of finding and collecting them and for making copies. This should be free of charge.