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A Survey of Access to Information in Abkhazia and its Impact on People’s Lives September 6, 2007

Posted by natasha in LITERATURE REVIEW.
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Hi Tofus,

This document was originally 115 pages, so I hope these following information can some how be uselful and supportive for our findings. ps: my body just crashed and burned last night..had to go to the hospital…bleehhh…so far not a holiday that i wanted. Ok gotta go to the wedding rehersal now. cu! pss: analysis coming up tonite. thanks!

ARTICLE 19, London, 2007 – Index Number: EUROPE/2007/06 

1. IntroductionInformation is vital in all societies, but this is particularly so in conflict and post-conflict situations. A number of people interviewed for this report emphasized that having access to comprehensive and accurate information increases people’s sense of security whilst the lack of reliable information fuels insecurity. Information is also fundamental to resolving key concerns in the aftermath of conflict, such as ensuring respect for human rights, government accountability and achieving sustainable development. The lack of information and means of communication has highlighted for many the fundamental  value ofinformation for human dignity, as well as for political stability
and development.
 Since the ceasefire, Abkhazia has undertaken considerable efforts to build up democratic institutions, but these are still weak. Transparency and public accountability – key features of good governance – are still in their infancy. This report presents the findings of a qualitative survey looking at what impact access to information – particularly access to information held by public bodies – or the denial of such information has on people’s lives in Abkhazia. A key recommendation is that Abkhazian institutions should adopt rules for greater transparency that will help them share information more effectively with the public, and that they should also find ways to consult more with the public and incorporate people’s views and opinions in decision-making.One might ask whether a comprehensive ‘access to information’ regime, which enables such practices, is not something reserved for well-established democracies, requiring highly developed institutions and considerable financial resources – conditions which Abkhazia clearly does not satisfy. However, one would argue that the quality of the relationship between the population and its institutions is of utmost importance, and that the current complex situation can only be tackled with public participation in decision-making, together with transparency and public accountability of institutions. 
They wanted to have a greater understanding of the way public institutions function and how their performance could be improved. The need for trust in public authorities was discussed extensively by them. Most thought that greater transparency and access to information would help build more confidence as well as making institutions more effective.
Several respondents pointed out that poor communication and public information from public bodies have sometimes led to confusion and instability as in the example of the relocation of a city market, where lack of transparency about the decision and its implementation has caused social unrest.
6 People pointed out that lack of consultation in decision-making can make authorities appear arbitrary in the eyes of the public. Corruption was also identified as a factor diverting resources away from their use for the benefit of the public. Greater transparency is one of the most powerful tools for ensuring that public resources are not misappropriated.
 In particular people from remote areas felt that lack of information and a lack of opportunities to communicate constitute for them a serious obstacle to the fulfillment of essential needs, for instance by preventing them from accessing information vital to their health or economic development, or by excluding them from public debate. The lack of availability of the latest knowledge on illnesses such as HIV/AIDS or infant care reduces the quality of services that health workers are able to provide to their patients.7 As a result, people often do not have the information necessary to allow them to take appropriate precautions to avoid infection or to react adequately in case of illness. Similar problems affect other areas, such as, for instance, the education sector, where every school has to rely largely on the informational and material resources it happens to have at its disposal. The quality of schooling, accordingly, is low and not really standardized. Existing taboos in some subject areas also diminish the society’s ability to tackle important problems. The almost complete lack of statistical information on social, economic and development indicators makes it impossible for public institutions, NGOs, and international organizations to thoroughly assess needs and gaps, and effectively prevents the development of adequate programmes to improve the situation. Personal contact and hearsay are important sources of information for many Abkhazians. The main problem with information obtained through hearsay and personal relations is that it can be unreliable. Sometimes hearsay is a source of misinformation, and can cause or exacerbate problems and insecurity.  The research undertaken also contained a focus on gender issues to explore whether and to what extent there are any gender-specific dimensions when it comes to access to information, and to ensure that our assessment and recommendations take the needs of both men and women into account. We found that lack of access to information is an issue that is strongly felt by both men and women. Nevertheless, the disadvantaged position of women in society as a whole, and the fact that they possess little political influence whilst being responsible for the survival and wellbeing of families, results in them being particularly affected by the various disadvantages of poor access to information. The study shows that public officials themselves suffer from lack of information too, making it difficult for them to perform well.  
Limited resources and capacities were mentioned as important obstacles in this context.
At the same time, there exist examples of institutions attempting to improve their information services and seeking dialogue with the public.
  2. Country Background: Governance and Living Conditions in Abkhazia Today Broadcast mediaThe broadcast media in Abkhazia are firmly in the hands of the authorities, which operate a television and radio network. The governmental channels usually do not cover topics that are challenging to the authorities. There is only one programme that involves debates: Argama (‘Evident’), which is broadcasted one evening a week for approximately two hours. The debates are on a range of issues. On one occasion, Abkhazia’s information policy was also discussed. There is one private television station – Abaza-TV previously called Inter-TV – but it is not operating currently as it only recently resolved issues related to licensing. It planned to resume broadcasting in March 2007. It does not broadcast news or current affairs programmes and its coverage is limited to the surroundings of the capital city of Sukhum/i. The station was recently taken over by a businessman who is said to have political ambitions. The Sukhum/I population also has access to TV-Sukhum, which broadcasts only films and advertising, and no news. There are local television stations in a few towns. They provide some local news items but no comprehensive coverage. The station in Tkvarcheli/Tkuarchal, for instance, only broadcasts once a week for a couple of hours. Villages, especially in the winter, often suffer from a lack of electricity due to the bad condition of the electricity infrastructure. When this happens, people have no access to television. This is a particularly acute problem in those villages where there is also no access to newspapers or the Internet.  In addition to Abkhazian television, all households have access to Russian television, which constitutes  an important source of information. However, Russian  television itself is not independent and reflects mainly President Putin’s policies. Recently, people who want to have a greater choice of channels have also started gettingsatellite dishes. However, they are rather expensive and few can afford them. Radio Soma is the only private radio station, broadcasting 24 hours a day, primarily music, but also carrying some news and, at times, live talk shows with invited guests. It is a very popular station. NewspapersAs television provides only short news slots, people get more in-depth information from the print media. There are five private newspapers and two governmental ones. Most are weeklies; Abkhazia has no daily paper.22 Some of the papers are more independent, while others support either the Vice-President or the President.  The opposition print media display overt criticism of the authorities, but their output is sometimes considered to be unethical, unprofessional and non-constructive.Both the private and State media have limited finances, but the private media in particular suffer from a lack of resources. This is due to the fact that the advertising market is very small, and people’s purchasing power very low. The economy is stagnant, and in 2006 the costs of printing were raised twice. To augment their meagre salaries, journalists often work in more than one newspaper or agency. Chegemskaya Pravda, which employs 6–8 people, receives 20–30 per cent of its revenue from advertising. This is just sufficient for the newspaper to continue operating. Although private newspapers are relatively popular compared to State newspapers, the overall circulation of the print media is low. Among the factors contributing to this are distribution difficulties. Abkhazian television therefore reaches far more people than the print media. There is also a scarcity of paper and printing facilities. Due to poor transport links and the lack of a distribution network they arrive in small towns only after a delay of several days, and often they do not reach rural areas at all. Communications and the InternetAlthough Abkhazia had an extensive telephone network before the war, many villages today do not have telephone connections because the lines were damaged and never repaired.People make calls from public phones whenever they travel to the district towns, often on market days.A significant improvement in communications occurred when Abkhazia’s first mobile phone network started operating in 2003, and a second one was launched in the autumn of 2006. Internet access is slow and unreliable because the landline telephone network is in very bad condition. Use of the internet is mainly restricted to privileged sections of the population in urban areas. 3. The Right to Access Information: A Fundamental and Enabling Human Right 3.2. The global trend of ‘freedom of information’The first freedom of information law was passed in Sweden as early as 1776. However, it is only over the past twenty-five years that freedom of information has become a global trend and dozens of countries around the world have adopted laws that give the general public a right to access government-held information, many of them former Communist countries inEastern Europe.27 It is, however, not sufficient that the constitution guarantees the right to information. Unless a specific law sets out the rules, including the steps to be taken to request and receive information, and the nature of the obligations placed upon the public bodies to provide this information, individuals will not be able to exercise the right in practice. The law should also create an appeals mechanism in case the right to access information is violated. 3.3. The right to informationThe importance of freedom of information was acknowledged by the United Nations GeneralAssembly in its very first session in 1946 when it adopted Resolution 59(I) which states: Freedom of information is a fundamental human right and … the touchstone of all the freedoms to which the UN is consecrated. The right to information, also referred to as ‘freedom of information’, is, in all major human rights treaties and declarations, included in the human right to freedom of expression. At the global level, it is guaranteed through Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of HumanRights32 and Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).33 The latter, which Abkhazia has committed to respect through Article 11 of its ‘Constitution’, states: 2. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art or through any media of his choice.  3.3.1. The right to provide and receive information Although freedom of expression is often thought of as the right to speak one’s mind without undue interference by the authorities, in fact the legal definition is broader. According toArticle 19 of the ICCPR, freedom of expression includes the right to receive information which others impart; a government which chooses, for example, to suppress a publication, is interfering not just with the author’s, but also with prospective readers’ right to freedom of expression. This arrangement recognises that a right to speak is worth little without a corresponding right to listen. More fundamentally, it also signals that the purpose of freedom of expression is not just to guarantee everyone the opportunity to propagate ideas, but to enable every individual to be well-informed about all aspects of society.. This has been interpreted as setting a very high threshold for any State actions that have the effect of restricting expression or information, crystallised in a three-part test37. First, the interference must be provided for by law. The law must be accessible and “formulated with sufficient precision to enable the citizen to regulate his conduct.” Second, the interference must pursue one of the legitimate aims listed in Article 19(3); this list is exclusive. Third, and most importantly, the interference must be “necessary” to secure that aim, in the sense that it serves a pressing social need, that the reasons given to justify it are relevant and sufficient and that the interference is proportionate to the legitimate aim pursued. This implies that restrictions must be narrow and effective. The government, as the guarantor of rights of individuals on its territory, is thus under an obligation to ensure the effective exercise of the right to freedom of expression for all, which includes the right of citizens to receive information that others are willing to impart. The right of freedom of information implies not only that governments must provide information held by them on request by an individual, but also that they should take active steps to publish information in certain crucial areas. Freedom of information should not go so far as to cause more harm than good; at the same time, claims about the harm that would result from releasing a record should be treated with great caution, given most governments’ tendency towards excessive secrecy. 3.4. The role of freedom of information for good governance and democracyIt is now widely accepted that freedom of information is an essential requirement for democratic governance. The fundamental principle underlying the concept of democratic governance is that “[t]he will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government”.60 In accordance with this principle and in as far as public bodies serve the people, they do not own the information they hold; rather, they hold it on behalf of the public. As such, this information must be accessible to members of the public, unless there is an overriding public interest in secrecy, and it is a duty of democratic governments to enable access to information by enacting freedom of information laws.  3.5. The role of freedom of information for developmentAround the world, it is those communities most affected by poverty which are least able to impart and obtain information, including that relating to basic services. As a result, they are excluded from public debate and unable to influence decisions that have a profound effect on their everyday lives. The alienation of poor communities from the public sphere prevents them from being able to represent their interests at the decision-making level, rendering them even more vulnerable and powerless. It is the poor who bear the greatest burden of corruption, since corruption always entails some public resources being diverted away from a public purpose to benefit some private interests, and the least influential members of society face the strongest requirement to pay bribes in order to get services.68 Better access to information can empower poor and disadvantaged communities to advocate their own interests and rights and become active stakeholders in development. In societies where information flows widely and access to communication services is widespread, markets and government institutions are likely to become more efficient, transparent and accountable. The institutions and organisations that serve the poor and defend their interests, for instance NGOs, can be more effective. Information and knowledge that are vital to the poor can be more easily and widely accessible.69Successful development relies on an enabling legal and policy environment, predictable and effective governance. An access to information regime is a necessary prerequisite for accomplishing these objectives: poverty eradication and development strategies need to be based on comprehensive needs information and analysis, and require participation of the beneficiaries in the design of the measures that are taken to improve their lives. Needs assessment and effective participation of beneficiaries entail gathering appropriate information and making it available to those that need it, as well as soliciting perspectives and knowledge from the populations that are targeted by the development policies. Over the past years, actors in international development have become increasingly aware that freedom of information is absolutely critical to achieving and sustaining poverty eradication and development.In his 2000 Annual Report the UN Special Rapporteur noted that the right to seek, receive and impart information, in addition to being essential for ensuring democracy and freedom in a society, “is also a right that gives meaning to the right to participate which has been acknowledged as fundamental to, for example, the realization of the right to development.”70In his 2004 Annual Report he confirmed: “…addressing the information and communication needs of the poor as an essential feature of the right to information because the poor often lack information that is vital to their lives – information on basic rights and entitlements, information on public services, health, education and employment”.71 The Commission on Human Rights in its Resolution 2001/72 expressly linked good governance to sustainable human development. The resolution, which was adopted by consensus, stated: “…that transparent, responsible, accountable and participatory government, responsive to the needs and aspirations of the people, is the foundation on which good governance rests, and that such a foundation is a sine qua non for the promotion of human rights, including the right to development”.72 The development community too has, over the past 10 years, arrived at the conclusion that the right to information is a prerequisite for sustainable human development.In 2002 the annual Human Development Report, published by the United NationsDevelopment Programme (UNDP), was dedicated to the theme ‘Deepening democracy in a fragmented world’. It recognised that economic growth is not a sufficient condition for development, and that instead political power and political institutions have immense influence on human progress. It highlighted that shifting power to the poor by giving them a voice and an active role in decision-making is a requirement for achieving human development. Democratic governance enables development, said the report, because it gives individual people the freedom to make choices and decisions and hold their governments accountable – important features of human development in their own right; because democratic countries are better able to avert conflict and catastrophes; and because in democracies people are empowered to press for policies that expand social and economic opportunities, and open debates help communities shape their priorities.73 It also noted that there has been an explosion of civil society activism and new forms of political participation around the world over the past two decades, and that civil society groups are increasingly taking more direct roles in local decision-making and monitoring and are developing new, collaborative forms of governance.74 The report explicitly mentioned freedom of expression and freedom of information as necessary ingredients to strengthen these processes.75 
Three of the six components chosen by the World Bank as a measure of good governance
for development are closely linked to and require effective access to information regimes:
· Voice and accountability (public participation; political and civil rights);· Government effectiveness;· Control of corruption. 3.6. Freedom of information and socio-economic rights: The rights to health and lifeFreedom of information is also a right that enables other rights to be protected and exercised.It is therefore referred to as a ‘cornerstone right’ or ‘empowerment right’. It is through the right to seek, receive and disseminate information that people can demand the respect of all other human rights, for instance the right not be discriminated against or socio-economic rights. In 1989, the UN Human Rights Committee stated:The right to life has been too often narrowly interpreted. The expression “inherent right to life” cannot be properly understood in a restrictive manner, and the protection of this right requires that states adopt positive measures.81  5. Recommendations  People identified a variety of areas where there is a real need for more information.· Many, including public officials, deplored the lack of specialised information and opportunities to upgrade professional skills and knowledge.· A strong need for more access to information from public institutions was expressed.More information would help contribute to the following aims:– the need for truth– safety– public trust in institutions– tackling human rights abuses and abuse of the law– ensuring community needs get addressed– participation in public debate and decision-making· In particular, people wanted to have more transparency in the socio-economic sphere, information on public services, on public income and spending.  “In this respect it’s the man’s country, and there are men in power structures. The very fact that we don’t have programs for women on television probably says a lot.” For another female interviewee, there was a big difference in male and female information needs. Traditionally men have been mainly interested in politics, she says, and more recently they got increasingly interested in information on business opportunities in their quest to make money. Women, on the other hand, are more concerned with securing livelihoods, and how to educate and bring up children. One woman television journalist noted that there is a need to discuss in the press issues relating to women in the workplace, domestic violence (as women do not know their rights), as well as issues of child care and education.This kind of information was described as crucial to assist women in defending their rights,and caring for themselves and their children.  · The following key areas were identified as those where people would like to see more transparency:– authorities’ activities– laws– health– environment– development and social issues– statistics– economy and privatisation– politics and security 5.3.3. Why information is importantRespondents mentioned the following reasons why there needs to be a flow of information from public bodies to the general public: The need for truth: The need for truth was mentioned both by ‘ordinary people’ and civil society representatives. One interviewee said that only by having different alternative sources of information can one gain a more objective picture of what is happening. “I don’t know, to what extent it would facilitate life, or maybe on the contrary, it would complicate it, but all of us would like to know the truth. We should feel involvement in all processes … During the war we understood the complexity of the situation, we tried to help in whatever way we could.And now nobody is informing us.” Safety:Receiving information makes people feel more secure. Public trust: There was a feeling that people in public positions often use the power they hold to further their personal business interests rather than working “for the people”, which lowers the esteem people have for the authorities. Tackling human rights abuses and abuse of the law: Two women activists pointed out that having more information from law-enforcement bodies, public health services and educational establishments would contribute to preventing abuses of the law: “People would be more protected and with more information it could even be guaranteed that fewer infringements occur in these areas.” Addressing community needs effectively:A woman from Tkvarcheli/Tkuarchal complained about road works on a major road that have been going on for five years. The road is extremely important for the local population, and yet there has been no comprehensive information on why the works progressed so slowly. “This road is all our life – everything is connected with it. But if everyone had information on what was the deadline for building this road, how much money has been spent on it and who are the responsible persons, then the situation with accountability would be different.” Public debates and decision-making on issues of importance: The majority of civil society activists interviewed highlighted how difficult it is for people to make personal and public decisions without adequate information. Public funds and private business: Ordinary people found that information on the public budget and public spending is insufficient, as well as information on the local economy, need to improve information sharing between different parts of the public administration. Often information that is officially kept secret still gets to the public through leaks and starts circulating as hearsay. Many people said that they perceive such information as being more reliable than official information – a fact that is indicative of a lack of public trust in the institutions and in the authenticity of the information these release. In fact, information that circulates through hearsay inevitably leads to misrepresentation of facts, and exaggeration. It cannot be verified or relied upon, and can contribute to fuelling confusion and tensions within society.   ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of all frontiers.’Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights Email: info@article19.orgWeb: http://www.article19.org

© Article 19, 2007 ▪ ISBN 1-902598-93-8

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Comments»

1. Disti - September 6, 2007

whoa… hospitalised?!?! hope ur alright tash!! i forgot to ask what ur contact nr in indo is..
anyway get well dear


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