Good laws, weak practice put media freedom at risk
By Warren Hedges

The Messenger, Georgia
29 Oct. 2004

The OSCE's text on repealing criminal libel laws
'Ending the chilling Effect' was authored in part
by Georgia's Prosecutor General Zurab Adeishvili

Already facing heavy criticism for its treatment of human rights
concerns and respect for political plurality, the Georgian government
received serious criticism this week for its record on access to
information and press freedoms.

Over 50 Journalists from Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia gathered in
Tbilisi October 26-27 for the First South Caucasus Media Conference
sponsored by the OSCE office of Freedom of the Media and the OSCE
Mission to Georgia.

On the one hand, organizers said that Georgia is at the forefront
of media freedom by passing some of the world's most liberal laws on
defamation in July this year that decriminalized libel and slander,
meaning that journalists no longer have to fear jail time in case
they are accused.

OSCE's representative on Freedom of the Media, Miklos Haraszti,
who hosted the conference, noted Georgia "belongs to the vanguard
not just in the CIS, Eastern Europe or even Western Europe but also
globally. It is among the five countries in the world that have
decriminalized libel."

The other country's where libel laws carry no criminal liability
- though they preserve civil liability - are the United States,
Moldova, Ukraine and Bosnia Herzegovina. By lifting the fear of
criminal prosecution, the OSCE's Haraszti noted that these countries
reinforce modern civilization where journalists cannot be arrested
if someone disagrees with what they print or broadcast.

While Georgia's legal statutes won praise, media analysts express
serious concern over how the laws are enforced and how the government
respects media freedom in practice.

Earlier this month, the media freedom watchdog Article 19 published a
report on Freedom of Information and the Media in Armenia, Azerbaijan
and Georgia and criticized the new Georgian government for its
failure to provide free access to information and several incidents
of officials intimidating journalists.

Article 19's Europe Program Officer Iryna Smolina authored the report
and also attended the Tbilisi conference where she told The Messenger
that the new government has employed the "chameleon method" whereby
"they changed names and changed their declarations but they have
retained the same methods with the media."

In a survey of journalists and government officials in Georgia,
Article 19 found that both groups agreed that public bodies are under
a legal obligation to provide information to the public. But Smolina
explains that official bodies under the new government have an even
worse record of releasing public information.

Over the first nine months of the year, Article 19 has documented
numerous cases when journalists attempts to gain public information
have been denied through delays, procedural problems such as the
restructuring of government offices and the absence of official
offices to handle freedom of information requests.

In its report commissioned by the OSCE, Article 19 notes that despite
the Rose Revolution in Georgia, "public institutions until now retained
the secrecy and the attitudes of their predecessor regimes."

The report also includes several cases of intimidation of journalists
that have occurred in 2004. In addition to the highly-publicized case
of Gori editor Rezo Okruashvili, who was jailed on planted evidence,
Article 19 records the cases of journalists who were threatened and/or
attacked by government officials and members of the National Movement.

In May 2004, the editor of a regional Kakheti paper was beaten in an
attack he said was inspired by local authorities. Then in July he was
attacked again and robbed. A day after the robbery he recognized the
attacker as a member of the ruling party and a close friend of the
local gamgebeli.

While lawyer Iryna Smolina says that better government policies are
needed, she also notes that Georgian media must do more to create
independent editorial policies. Many journalists, she says, have put
themselves in a weak position through self-censorship and unwillingness
to learn or use many of the laws that exist for their protection. "The
only way to make the laws work is to use the law," she says.

A day after the OSCE conference closed Georgia received another wake-up
call when independent watchdog Reporters Without Borders announced
its third annual worldwide index of press freedom, dropping Georgia
to 94th position out of 167 countries. In 2003, Georgia ranked 73rd
out of 166 countries.

In a brief explanation of Georgia's ranking, Reporters Without Borders
said the drop "is largely due to unrest in the autonomous republics
of Adjara and Abkhazia, which gave rise to press freedom violations."

That report covers events from September 1, 2003 through September 1,
2004, and is based on questionnaires sent to partner organizations
of Reporters Without Borders, as well as to journalists, researchers,
jurists and human rights activists.