Leadership of the Georgian government and the Parliament have vowed to cooperate closely with the civil society groups in creating mechanisms both on legislative and executive level to provide tight public scrutiny in order to prevent illegal surveillance and eavesdropping.
PM Ivanishvili, Interior Minister Irakli Garibashvili and some other senior officials from the government, as well as Parliamentary Chairman Davit Usupashvili met on April 29 with a large group of civil society and media representatives, who organized a conference to discuss measures to prevent illegal surveillance and eavesdropping.
Last six annual human rights reports on Georgia from the U.S. Department of State, from the one covering 2007 to the most recent report covering 2012, repeatedly mentions about individuals telling western mentors that they were reluctant to discuss, or had stopped discussing, sensitive topics by telephone due to concern about government wiretapping.
In late October, 2012 the Constitutional Court ruled that operative investigations of private Internet communications would require a court order. The U.S. Department of State’s 2012 human rights report, however, said that despite of this ruling the Interior Ministry “appeared to have continuing direct access to the technological infrastructure of telecommunication companies, raising concerns regarding continued illegal government surveillance.”
During the meeting with civil society representatives on April 29 PM Ivanishvili, as well as Interior Minister Garibashvili claimed that practice of illegal surveillance, widespread under the previous government, was now over. They, however, also acknowledged that only the authorities’ verbal assurances that security agencies were no longer practicing illegal surveillance would not be enough to allay concerns still existing in the public, mainly because of past experience.
“There will be a proper legislation, but the most important is to observer that legislation and there should be a strong reaction to every single case [of illegal surveillance] if they reoccur again,” Ivanishvili said.
He also said that there was an exaggerated perception that everyone under the previous government was eavesdropped on their mobile phones; he said that such perceptions were “deliberately” fueled by the previous authorities, which aimed at keeping the public under “fear” of being constantly monitored by the state.
Interior Minister Garibashvili said that under the previous leadership, there was “a separate unit” within the Interior Ministry, “which was in charge of illegal surveillance” and which, as he said, was scrapped after he took the office.
He said that a huge cache of audio and video recordings, obtained through illegal surveillance on political figures “including myself and the Prime Minister”, which was gathered by the previous leadership of the ministry, was still stored in the Interior Ministry.
“We cannot destroy this archive before the investigation is still ongoing – we have yet to question some former high ranking officials, including former deputy interior minister [Amiran] Meskheli; but as soon as the investigation is completed we will destroy it,” Garibashvili said.
“Of course we have technical capabilities to carry out surveillance, but I want to assure you that this is carried out in full observance of law,” he said at the meeting with civil society representatives. “As far as tightening of control and creating additional mechanisms in order to avoid reoccurrence of past practice of [illegal surveillance] is concerned, we are absolutely ready for close cooperation and for accepting your recommendations in this regard.”
Parliamentary Chairman Davit Usupashvili said at the meeting that mechanisms both on legislative and executive level should be developed to guarantee proper public oversight.
“No matter how often the Prime Minister repeats that those times of [illegal surveillance] are now over, it won’t have any result if the people do not believe in it and huge efforts are needed in order to convince the public that this practice is really over,” he said.
“We, the representatives of the authorities, understand that in this regard our assurances might be less convincing for the public,” Usupashvili said and added that the Parliament was ready to take recommendations from the civil society how to improve existing legislation in this regard.
He also said that monitoring should apply not only “usual suspects – police and security agencies”, but also communication service providers.
Usupashvili, however, also said that any new mechanism should be “flexible” enough in order to strike the right balance to on the one hand guarantee strong public scrutiny, but on the other hand not to cause “negative side effects” for law enforcement agencies in performing their legitimate duties. “So there are lots of issues at stake and it is very good that such discussions have started,” he added.