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Controversy over Planned Media Restrictions in Courtrooms
/ 27 Jun.'07 / 20:34
Civil Georgia

A ruling majority sponsored proposal to ban video and audio recordings and photo coverage from courtroom trials by media sources surprisingly failed to garner enough votes in Parliament on June 27.

The draft law fell five votes short of the 112 required. A repeat vote on the proposal will take place next week. The June 27 voting, however, showed that not all lawmakers from the ruling majority are in favor of the proposal.

The proposal was slammed by opposition lawmakers as an attempt “to impose censorship.” Key lawmakers from the ruling National Movement Party defended the initiative as a means of preventing “the formation of false public opinion” on certain cases and protecting judges from “psychological pressure.”

An explanatory paper, annexed to the draft law, says that the presence of TV cameras in a courtroom is usually used by the parties involved in a trial to orchestrate media hype.
 
“Under such conditions, hearings go beyond all legal limits and instead of producing and discussing testimonies the trials are jammed with emotional statements and speeches that do not promote the perfect and impartial discussion of a case. This situation in turn exerts psychological pressure on a judge,” the document reads.
 
“Besides the pressure on the court, this kind of situation in courtrooms contributes to the formation of false public opinion. Pre-determined public opinion, which is formed long before the court ruling about a particular case, contributes to psychological pressure on the court.”
 
Journalists will still be allowed to attend trials, with selected footage disseminated by the court press service, according to the proposal.
 
The proposal comes after court rulings in several high-profile cases triggered disorder and chaos in the courtrooms, which were covered by media sources. Footage showing angry courtroom spectators insulting judges and prosecutors were extensively aired by television stations. These high-profile trials – the most recent being Irakli Batiashvili’s – were criticized by opposition parties and many human right groups as unfair.
 
Levan Bezhashvili, a lawmaker from the ruling party, who chairs the committee for legal issues, said at the hearings on June 27, that the proposal aimed at eradicating “such harmful practices,” in which trials turn into “political stage shows.”
 
“Such practices in turn can be regarded as an attempt to mount pressure on judges,” Bezhashvili, who presented the proposal, said.
 
Opposition lawmakers, however, were vocal in their criticism of the proposal.
 
“This is a law on censorship. For the first time we will now have a law on censorship... This is an attempt to install an iron curtain in order to prevent the public from seeing what is happening in courtrooms,” MP Kakha Kukava of the opposition Conservative Party said.
 
Ivliane Khaindrava, a lawmaker from the opposition Republican Party, said the proposal was “an attack on freedom of information and an attack on citizens’ right to receive information.”
 
He also criticized the judiciary, saying they were “totally demoralized.”
 
The government proposal was in fact, according to him, an attempt by the ruling party to “to hide the negative trends in the judiciary.”
 
Lawmakers from the ruling majority responded by saying that the proposal was in line with accepted Western courtroom practice and did not contradict democratic principles.

Public Defender Sozar Subari, however, rejected this line of argument, saying the proposal was inappropriate for a country where the judiciary is still in transition and reforms are still underway.

Most of journalists, not unexpectedly, were also critical of the initiative. Natia Gogsadze, a reporter from Rustavi 2 television station, said the proposal would restrict journalists’ abilities to fully cover trials.

“There are lots of interesting moments during court hearings worth recording. Footage provided by the court press service will not be enough,” she told Civil.Ge.

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