Closing government sessions limits journalistic activities
Georgia’s national government and the Government of the Autonomous Republic of Ajara have established a flawed practice which prevents the media from attending government sessions. This imposes significant restrictions on the work of journalists aimed at obtaining information and controlling the authorities and is a backslide in terms of the openness and accountability of the government.
On 31 July 2018, Tornike Rizhvadze, the new head of the Government of the Autonomous Republic of Ajara, closed the very first session for journalists. Only camera operators were allowed to record the first 10 minutes of the session. According to the local media, over the past several years, no chairperson has restricted journalists’ right to attend government sessions. Rizhvadze had said that the first part of the session would be open but had not specified how long the first part would last and whether journalists other than camera operators would be allowed to attend the session.
This flawed practice had already been established by the Government of Georgia, whose sessions are closed. In early 2016, the government restricted the openness even further, banning journalists from the 12th floor where the government sessions are held. Media representatives were to wait for the government members on the 3rd floor, at the media centre. Camera operators could record the sessions for several minutes at the start, which mainly involved recording the prime minister’s speech and some video footage.
This practice further complicated journalists’ communication with the government members. In 2016, several media outlets and 274 journalists who had signed the Charter of Journalistic Ethics, addressed the prime minister in an open letter, expressing their dissatisfaction with regard to the restrictions imposed on the work of the media.
After the appointment of the new prime minister, Mamuka Bakhtadze, the rule has changed slightly: the sessions remain closed but journalists are brought to the 12th floor, the prime minister makes a statement before entering the session and then journalists, again, wait for the government members on the 3rd floor. Camera operators are no longer attending the sessions and the press office supplies journalists with video footage.
The issue of openness of the government sessions is regulated by the Law of Georgia on the Structure, Authority and Rules of Operation of the Government of Georgia and the decree of [the Government of] the Autonomous Republic of Ajara, which state that “a government session is, as a rule, closed. In cases envisaged by the law as well as based on the government’s decision, a session can be declared public.”
According to the General Administrative Code, however, a collegial public institution is obliged to conduct its sessions openly and publicly with the exception of instances when personal data or information considered state or commercial secret are discussed.
Despite this inconsistency between different levels of legislation, it is important that the attendance of the government sessions by the media does not contradict any existing law, on the contrary, it introduces a high standard of government transparency.
To ensure openness and accountability of the government, it is important that the government make its sessions open for the media and close them only in exceptional cases. The precedent of closing government sessions could establish bad practice and encourage the lack of transparency among local governments as well which, to a certain extent, is already happening.
 Decree No 33 of [the Government of] the Autonomous Republic of Ajara, Article 17, Paragraph 4, http://www.adjara.gov.ge/uploads/Docs/e8accf3fcd954e8ab86667bf33ce.pdf