REPORT: Article 19 on Freedom of Information in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia

9 May 2005

A report from London-based NGO Article 19 on freedom of information legislation and its impact on the news media in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, finds that problems with implementation, state secrets legislation, and a Soviet-style predilection for excessive secrecy have created "the environment for arbitrary refusals, manipulation of information, and, in extreme cases, even release of false information by officials."

Executive Summary

On 26 October 2004, at the First OSCE South Caucasus Media Conference (Tbilisi, Georgia), journalists adopted a declaration calling the Government of Azerbaijan to "adopt a comprehensive law on Free Access to Information based on international standards", and the governments of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia to develop in all three States "a comprehensive strategy for the implementation of the [freedom of information] laws, jointly with the media and NGOs."

An advanced freedom of information regime, with a comprehensive freedom of information law in its core, provides a number of benefits to society and government by:

  • underpinning all other human rights;
  • supporting people-centered policy-making and its effective implementation;
  • building public trust in government;
  • challenging corruption;
  • making electoral democracy meaningful;
  • boosting media capacity;
  • creating a transparent and competitive economic environment; and
  • increasing accountability of private actors.

Information is the lifeblood of the media and effective access to information laws are crucial to their ability to perform their role as the ‘defenders of public interest’ in a democratic society. The media should therefore play a full role in the adoption and implementation process of the law, and, once implemented, they should be among the primary users of the law.

In a ‘closed’ environment, with persisting State control over the media, journalists often rely on personal luck and leaks of information or depend on press releases and voluntary disclosures by the very people they are seeking to investigate. The lack of access to information also leaves journalists open to government allegations that their stories are inaccurate and reliant on unverified information instead of facts.

This briefing summarises the main findings of an ARTICLE 19 report on the extent of the implementation of freedom of information legislation in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia and its impact on the media of these three countries. It also gives an overview of the evolving media landscape in each of the three countries.

The full report examines media’s difficulties in obtaining information from public bodies and how this affects their ability to disseminate information in the interest of the general public, and therefore to fulfill their vital role as a ‘watchdog’ in a democratic system of government. It includes a survey of 135 media professionals and 105 public officials in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, carried out with the assistance of ARTICLE 19 partner organisations. The report focuses on situations where access to information procedures should have facilitated the media’s performance. Instead, as the key findings and recommendations of the report reveal, the media has faced a large number of problems in seeking to access information, and positive stories on access to official information appear to be rare in the South Caucasus region.

Main Findings

There has been a steady growth of freedom of information legislation in the region. Georgia was in the forefront in standard-setting as it was the first country in the South Caucasus to adopt a comprehensive Freedom of Information (FOI) Law in 1999. Armenia is the only country in the region with a detailed strategy for the implementation of its FOI Law, developed by three Armenian civil society groups. Despite positive developments in Armenia and Georgia, both countries there have had problems with the implementation of the existing laws, further complicated by broad state secrets acts. Azerbaijan, which has not passed an advanced law yet, is further behind the other two States.

Many of the issues and problems identified throughout the research are common to all three South Caucasus States. In Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia various categories of information are barely accessible by the media (including information on the state of the environment, on health care, budget, education, contact information of public bodies, and on national security-related issues).

Access to information for the media often turns into a hurdle-race. The major obstacles to accessing official information by the media in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia include:

  • the lack of procedures and mechanisms for access to information, or the lack of appropriate legislation (as in Azerbaijan) that create the environment for arbitrary refusals, manipulation of information, and, in extreme cases, even release of false information by officials;
  • the lack of awareness among the journalists of their legal rights;
  • Soviet-style attitudes and traditions of secrecy amongst officials;
  • even where there is an awareness of their rights and the provisions in local FOI legislation guaranteeing those rights, there is no tradition among the media of going to court to defend their rights, mainly due to scepticism about the fair administration of justice, and lengthy court proceedings;
  • when refused access to the requested information, media professionals often use alternative sources of information.

65 per cent of journalists-respondents in Armenia mentioned the absence of the appropriate mechanisms and procedures as an obstacle for accessing official information; 67.5 per cent of media professionals in Azerbaijan and 61.8 per cent in Georgia mentioned the absence of the appropriate mechanisms.

As far as the public bodies are concerned, the survey shows great mistrust and misunderstanding. Public officials employ different ways of restricting access to information. Some of them include:

  • refusals (either with or without citing reasons) to provide the requested information because officials do not believe that such information should be made public;
  • releasing information at the discretion of public officials, that is only to the ‘loyal’ media;
  • delays in responding to requests, thus diminishing the value of the requested information;
  • releasing only partial information which may adversely affect writing a complete and accurate investigative story or preparing a full coverage of a particular event;
  • denial of accreditation, and unlawful closures of official meetings and court sessions to the public and the media;
  • refusals due to procedural problems, such as the lack of the appropriate mechanisms and regulations in place, and little or no communication among public bodies;
  • Defence and security institutions, alongside Public Prosecutor’s Offices, prove to be the least accessible to the media, while local authorities are generally the easiest to access;
  • E-governance is hardly developed in all three countries; official websites are either absent or if they exist are not regularly updated, and/or contain insufficient basic information.

On the positive side, however, 75 per cent of those interviewed in Azerbaijan declared that the adoption of a new law on Freedom of Information would improve the situation in accessing official information in the country. This possibly suggests that officials would appreciate clearer guidelines as to what information could be released, and would result in them acting in a less secretive manner.

The report’s key conclusion is that joint efforts of the media and their professional associations, civil society groups, international actors, and, above all, government institutions themselves are needed to advance the important right of access to information and to enable the media to play their key role as an intermediary between the people and the government.

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