Georgia: High Prices Limit Freedom of Information

Journalists say cost of accessing documentation hampers their ability to conduct investigations.

Georgia: High Prices Limit Freedom of Information

Journalists say cost of accessing documentation hampers their ability to conduct investigations.

Georgian law guarantees access for all to public information, but journalists, lawyers and ordinary citizens say they find the high prices charged by officials stop them exploiting the advantages of the regulations.

The Guria News, a regional newspaper, is one of the many media outlets that struggles with the high prices it has to pay to enjoy its rights.

Ia Mamaladze, publisher of the Guria News, and the chairman of Georgia’s Association of Regional Media, said she cannot currently afford to conduct a significant investigation about the sale of land in western Georgia, involving more than 130 land owners.

“Just to receive an account of each owner from the public register costs us 10 laris (5.60 US dollars) and that is not all the information we need, “ she said.

“Our paper’s budget for the whole month would not be enough to prepare this one article. We have worked it out and the total budget of the investigation would be 5,000 laris, and not a single regional or even non-regional media organisation could cover such expenses.”

The freedom of information law states that accessing a document costs between 10 and 20 laris, copying it costs 50 tetris, even though the documents are electronic and copying them consists of simply printing them and stamping them.

The public register’s spokeswoman saw nothing bad in that. “We are not haggling, we are following the law. The price is governed by the law. The register operates for everyone and, if you pay, we will rapidly and without obstacles provide the information,” Eka Ergemlidze said.

Ordinary Georgians trying to use her service’s archives were less sanguine, however.

“I want to secure my inheritance, because my grandfather died. But to get from the register all the documents I need costs so much money, that I have decided not to do it,” said Gaga Sinatashvili, a resident of Tbilisi.

And lawyers from the Georgian Young Lawyers Association say that restricted access to documents severely restricts their ability to act in court. The cost of appeal attempts in particular, they say, limits access to justice.

Around 20 Georgian newspapers earlier this year protested against what they regard as the inaccessibility of public information by publishing the words “Provide us with Public Information” on their front pages.

Pavle Kublashvili, a member of parliament from the ruling National Movement party and chairman of the Legal Issues Committee, said journalists only had themselves to blame for failing to get information.

“The problem is in ignorance. They cannot correctly form the request [for information from the public register]. Several independent investigations have confirmed that often the problem is in the lack of professionalism from journalism,” he said.

His remarks were partly upheld by a recent investigation by Human Rights House, who said the journalists often avoided making official requests for public information.

“This may partly be a lack of professionalism, but often the reason is that journalists think in advance that they won’t get the information in time. And information is a perishable product,” Gela Mtvivlishvili, a representative of the organisation in the Kakheti region, said.

“We conducted an interesting experiment. We sent to [the register] two requests for the same information, one from a journalist, and one from an ordinary citizen. We did not receive an answer to the request from the ordinary citizen, and we received an answer to the journalist after 10 days.”

In November, a group of media experts and lawyers drew up a list of amendments to freedom of information legislation, intended to increase transparency.

“People have believed that Georgia has a good liberal legal base for regulating the media and freedom of speech in general. But practise shows that the laws have these “black holes”, in which the quality of the media and freedom of speech get lost,” said Lasha Tugushi, editor in chief of the Resonance Daily and one of the initiators of the suggested amendments.

The ruling party did not, however, introduce the suggestions for discussion in parliament.

“In the conditions of the new wave of democratisation, we are ready to work on the transparency of the ownership of broadcasting companies. But we do not see any problems in the receipt of public information,” Kublashvili said.

Natia Kuprashvili works for the Georgian Association of Regional Broadcasters.

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