On April 25th, 2013, the National Security Archive (George Washington University, DC) and the Institute for Development of Freedom of Information (IDFI) organized a two-day conference in the Kopala Hotel in Tbilisi, Georgia. The conference focused on the issues of freedom of information with regards to the “Open Government Partnership” initiative and gathered some twenty-five participants from local and international nongovernmental organizations, as well as the representatives from several governmental agencies of Georgia. A representative from the Analytical Department of the Ministry of Justice of Georgia and the representative of the Office of the Ombudsman of Georgia were present. Lawyers, journalists and experts from seven different countries attended the conference: US, Russia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Ukraine and Georgia. Several journalists also attended the conference. A representative of the Good Governance in Georgia Program (G-3) of United States International Development Agency (USAID), Maia Gogoladze, was also present at the meeting. USAID is very actively involved in the implementation process of OGP.
The event was opened with a welcome speech by Svetlana Savranskaya from the National Security Archive and Giorgi Kldiashvili from IDFI. This is the fourth conference that had been organized in Georgia by IDFI and the National Security Archive that gathered many of the people that attended previous ones, though some new faces were seen. The conference had a very packed agenda, divided into six sessions, and focused on the issues of the quality and the implementation of the action plans in the countries, primarily focusing on how it affected freedom of information practices.
During the first session, with Mrs. Savranskaya as the Chair, Thomas Blanton, Giorgi Kldiashvili, Ivan Pavlov and Gergana Jouleva spoke about Open Government Partnership in general and in their respective countries. Mr. Blanton, Director of the National Security Archive, made a presentation about OGP in general, outlining the current situation regarding the initiative in the world, particularly in regards to the number of countries that have joined the Partnership, its goals and mission.
Giorgi Kldiashvili, in turn, focused on the issues of Open Government Partnership in Georgia. In his presentation, he outlined the process of the creation of the action plan for the initiative, underlining the fact that the plan was developed by the Ministry of Justice in close cooperation with the Civil Society. He also mentioned that the action plan was rather ambitious in that it contained commitments and obligations of two years that the Government had to meet in a rather compresses timeline. Rusudan Mikhelidze, Head of the Analytical Department of the Ministry of Justice of Georgia also contributed to the discussion, talking about the work done by the Government so far and the future plans of the Government on the implementation of the action plan of Georgia.
Echoing the previous presentation, Ivan Pavlov, the chairman of the Institute for Freedom of Information Development, Russia, in his presentation talked about OGP in Russia and what had been accomplished in its frameworks. First of all, he also outlined the development process of the action plan, again noting the fact that it was done during a process of consultation with the civil society. Six competent NGOs sent their suggestions to the Government, which were later discussed and mostly adopted in the national action plan. It was later evaluated by international experts, who called the plan ambitious and realistic.
The last presenter of this session was Gergana Jouleva, Executive Director of Access to Information Programme, who talked about the Open Government Partnership in Bulgaria. Mrs. Jouleva outlined the situation prior and after the adoption of the Bulgaria national action plan. The Government had undergone a very significant progress in the time period from 2000 to 2011, during which it adopted a number of important laws on the disclosure of public information and created internet resources where this information could be accessed. As the government of Bulgaria decided to join OGP, two main priority areas were identified: effective management of the public resources, and improving corporate responsibility and accountability (the latter, it should be noted, is missing from Georgia’s current action plan altogether). In the action plan, 33 measures were outlined, the implementation deadline of which is set at the end of 2013. However, despite some changes, Gergana criticized the implementation of the action plan for a deficit of public participation and lack of institutionalized mechanisms for it, lack of collaboration and an independent body that would oversee and coordinate the proactive disclosure of information.
The first presentation of the second session, presided by Levan Avalishvili, a FoI expert from IDFI, was by Oleksii Khmara, the President of Transparency International Ukraine. In a very interesting presentation, Mr. Khmara compared the implementation of the Open Government Partnership action plans from six different countries: Ukraine, Russia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Moldova, over several criteria, which contained, among others, the actual implementation progress, the rate of public engagement, and the quality of government campaign to inform citizens about the initiative. Russia, for example, exceled at the latter, with the Government making a considerable effort to advertise OGP and inform the citizens of the fact that Russia is actively engaged in the process, while, on the other hand, the implementation of the action plan up to this date suffered serious drawbacks. In contrast, Georgia’s rate of awareness of OGP is significantly low, with several experts mentioning that to say that 10% of citizens could answer what OGP is would be rather optimistic. Overall, some countries had strong points in some of the criteria, while suffering from weaknesses in others.
Next was Mesrop Harutyunyan, Board Member of the Journalists’ Union of Armenia, whose presentation was about the development of freedom of information in Armenia after joining Open Government Partnership. The progress of the development in Armenia in this direction has been slow so far, something on which Gevorg Hayrapetyan, Freedom of Information Center in Armenia, and Levon Barsegyan, Chairman of the Journalists’ Club “Asparez” and coordinator of the Gyumri Anticorruption Center, agreed with. Overall, the poor level of development of small rural communities, especially with regards to access to internet, and in turn, to information that is posted online, was said to be one of the main drawbacks of the OGP action plan implementation in Armenia. Apparently, community leaders either neglect or lack the funds for development in this direction. This was outlined in the presentation by Mr. Barsegyan, who focused on the issues of FoI in community life as a transparency tool.
The last three presentation of the third session focused largely on general issues related to the Open Government Partnership in their respective countries, rather than the action plans concretely. Viktor Monakhov, from the Institute for State and Law, Russian Academy of Sciences, talked about Partnership for Open Government and Civil Society, comparing these two as models of unity in terms of effectiveness. Giorgi Narmania, a lawyer at Georgia Young Lawyer’s Association, and Vakhushti Menabde, Director of Human Rights Education and Monitoring Center, focused on the issues of Georgia’s legislation with regards to freedom of information, specifically; they discussed transparency of legal persons established by the government and the drawback of the current FoI legislation of Georgia respectively. Mr. Menabde discussed the legislation at great length, outlining some of some major problems that need to be rectified as soon as possible, among them the general lack of clarity in the FoI Act, which leaves citizens that could not obtain public information unable to win cases in the Courts.
The last session of the first day of the conference was focused around the issues of the openness of former Soviet Archives, particularly in Russia. Jan Raczynski from Memorial, Russia, talked about access to Russian archives, followed by his colleague, Nikita Petrov, with a presentation on legal challenges and efforts to establish historical memory. Many participants of the conference expressed the opinion that, while the Russian archives have become significantly more open and accessible to researchers, a common problem is the lack of availability of the archival materials online. Omar Tushurashvili, Director of the Archive of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Georgia, in particular shared his insight on the workings of the former Soviet archives and his experience with collaborating with researchers over the last few years. Many participants of the conference were researchers who at some point in the past had studied Soviet history, and they complained that the only way to access information from Russian archives was to travel there, which is not always possible.
The second day of the conference started with a presentation by Levan Avalishvili about access to public information in Georgia prior and after the 1st October elections. He noted the positive trends that have emerged with the new Government. Using the Public Information Database statistics, a project of the Institute for Development of Freedom of Information, in the frameworks of which the Institute requests and processes public information from different public institutions, Mr. Avalishvili demonstrated a positive change in the percentage of the requests that were satisfied by governmental bodies. He also underlined that IDFI will continue requesting public information, both to analyze it and to observe whether the positive trend persists in the future. In contrast, Rashid Hajili, Director of Media Rights Institute of Azerbaijan, in his presentation on access to public records, noted an overall fall in transparency and accountability over the last period in Azerbaijan.
The last presentation in session five was by Svetlana Savranskaya, Head of Russia Programs, National Security Archive, on repatriation and access of the documents in the former soviet archives in the United States. Mrs. Savranskaya shared her experience on working with archival documents over years of conducting studies, noting the positive trends of openness over the last few years and stressing the importance of the availability of information from the archives.
The final session, with Rashid Hajili as chair, had two presenters: Ashot Melikyan, Chairman of the Committee to Protect Freedom of Expression, Armenia, and Ketevan Rostiashvili, professor at the Tbilisi State University, both of whom dedicated their presentations to issues of e-governance and access to information online. Namely, Mr. Melikyan talked about the monitoring process of the governmental websites and the issuing of requests for content standardization, which, it should be noted, is also a problem in Georgia. Many NGOs in Georgia, IDFI among them, monitor the websites of governmental bodies and send recommendations on improving both their technical side and their content. Mrs. Rostiashvili, on the other hand, talked specifically about Tbilisi City Electronic Government, dedicating her presentation to explaining and criticizing the structure of the Tbilisi City Hall website.
It should be noted that, despite being a formal occasion, the conference proceeded in a very friendly and rather informal atmosphere. Even though the agenda was very packed and the presenters were constantly pressed for time, every session sparked a discussion of the issues outlined by the presenters, and most participants engaged in these discussions, asked questions and answered them. The exchange of opinions and experience proved to be very valuable. Following the last session, the participants proceeded to visit Ananuri.
Another conference is planned to be held in Georgia in the fall.