Parliament passed on November 27 with its first reading a controversial package of government-backed bills on surveillance regulation and voted down a separate, competing bill, which was tabled by the Republican Party, a member of the Georgian Dream ruling coalition.
The issue of how to tackle a long-standing problem of security agencies’ direct, unfettered access to telecom operators’ networks has divided lawmakers within the GD ruling coalition with most of them backing PM Irakli Garibashvili’s stance that the Interior Ministry should retain its direct access and others, mainly MPs from the Republican Party, advocating for depriving the Interior Ministry of this capability.
The government-backed bill, which was co-sponsored by chairperson of human rights committee MP Eka Beselia, her deputy MP Gedevan Popkhadze and chairman of defense and security committee MP Irakli Sesiashvili, was passed with its first reading with 75 votes in favor and 58 against.
Lawmakers from UNM parliamentary minority group; Republican Party; Free Democrats party, which has quit the GD ruling coalition earlier this month, and few MPs from Georgian Dream-Democratic Georgia party, chaired by PM Garibashvili, were against of the government-backed bill.
The Parliament will hear the bill with its second reading on November 28 and it has to be adopted with its final reading before December 1.
President Giorgi Margvelashvili, who has not yet spoken publicly about his stance towards this bill, has the right to veto it.
At least 76 votes are required for the Parliament to override a presidential veto. Not counting 9 lawmakers from the Republican Party, which are against of this bill, the GD parliamentary majority group has 78 seats.
The government-backed package of bills allows the Interior Ministry to retain its direct access to telecom operators’ networks, but also empowers the office of personal data protection inspector to electronically monitor if the security agencies are carrying out surveillance lawfully, based on court warrant.
But the opponents, which also include civil society groups who have long been campaigning for reining in security agencies’ unrestricted direct access to telecom operators’ networks, argue that actual wording of the bill, full of complex technical terms about lawful interception management system, hash codes and log files, is far from what its sponsors are trying to portray and leaves room for the Interior Ministry to bypass personal data protection inspector for carrying out illegal monitoring of mobile phone and internet communication.
Supporters of the bill were citing mainly “security challenges” behind the need to allow the Interior Ministry, which also incorporates intelligence and security agencies, to retain its direct access to telecom operators’ networks.
A senior lawmaker from Georgian Dream-Democratic Georgia party, Gia Volski, said that citing examples of some European states by advocates of depriving the Interior Ministry of this capability was not relevant for Georgia, “because we are facing different security challenges.”
One of the co-sponsors of the bill, MP Eka Beselia, who chairs parliamentary committee for human rights, argued that there were “attempts to weaken” the Interior Ministry, which, she said, requires sufficient tools to tackle security challenges the country is facing.
MP Beselia also criticized opponents of the bill for trying to, as she put it, score political points on this sensitive issue and of “thinking only about their own political image” rather than on country’s security.
Supporters of the bill from the GD were also suggesting that just because the Interior Ministry was misusing its power and carrying out illegal surveillance when the UNM was in power, should not in itself become a reason not to trust the Interior Ministry now and to deprive it of its direct access to telecom networks. The previous Parliament adopted a legislative amendment in 2010, allowing the Interior Ministry to install so called ‘black box’ spy devices in telecommunications service providers’ networks.
In May, 2014 wiretaps of phone conversations of current and former high-ranking officials, among them of parliament speaker Davit Usupashvili of the Republican Party and then defense minister Irakli Alasania, were leaked, fueling allegations that the practice of illegal eavesdropping still continues.
MP Shalva Shavgulidze of the Free Democrats party said during the parliamentary debates on November 27, that the Interior Ministry “was misusing it powers because there was no proper system to prevent” unlawful surveillance.
“By keeping ‘key’ [a term referred to capability of direct access to telecom operators’ networks] to the Interior Ministry we are encouraging the law enforcement agencies for carrying out illegal surveillance. If the Interior Ministry does not want to carry out unlawful interception, than why should we keep this ‘key’ in the hands of Interior Ministry?” MP Shavgulidze said.
A competing bill, envisaging giving the ‘key’ to the Georgian National Communication Commission, was introduced by Republican MP Vakhtang Khmaladze, chairman of the parliamentary committee for legal affairs.
The bill, however, was voted down with 71 votes against and 61 in favor.
Republican Party MP Tina Khidasheli said during the debates before the vote that despite of disagreements with rest of the GD coalition on this issue, the Republican Party was not intending to quit the ruling coalition.
She said that there are some lawmakers within the GD coalition, who were against of the government-backed bill, but were hesitant to vote against it because they did not want to be seen as standing beside UNM lawmakers, who were also against of the proposal.
“I want to tell them that today it makes no difference. It does not matter what the liar UNM, which was infringing privacy of people on the daily basis when it was in power, will vote for; what matters is whether or not we will be able to stand beside those principles based on which the Georgian Dream was created,” she said.
MP Gia Volski, who chairs parliamentary faction of Georgian Dream-Democratic Georgia party, said: “We are in a complicated situation as our friends, Republicans, are trying to calm us down – ‘don’t worry, although UNM is voting against [this bill] like we do, it is now more important to stand on the right side’.”
He said the government-backed bill was “very progressive” and thanked co-sponsors for “standing firmly on their position and defending” the bill.
One of the co-sponsors of the bill, MP Eka Beselia, said in her closing remarks during the debates that there “is no issue whatsoever” on which she would vote in a similar way as “representatives of this violent regime” – referring to UNM party.