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In Armenia & Georgia, Data Sites Meant to Bring Transparency to Gov't Face Uphill Battles

BY Jessica McKenzie | Wednesday, May 7 2014

Young Georgians learn how to file a freedom of information request in the video below

The website OpenData.ge launched at the end of February as a place to store, organize and display freedom of information requests. It is a collaborative effort of four Georgian NGOs with assistance from the international NGO Huridocs, which works with organizations around the globe to harness the power of information to advance human rights. Georgia, however, has the advantage of relative government cooperation. In neighboring Armenia an organization of journalists launched PublicData.am with help from Huridocs in 2011 but have since struggled both against an unresponsive government and an indifferent media.

The Institute for Development of Freedom of Information (IDFI) launched the first iteration of OpenData.ge in 2010. A representative of Huridocs, Friedhelm Weinberg, told techPresident that OpenData.ge benefitted from the previous experience, and from the data the government had already made available. (The right to request information from the government has been a Georgian law since 1999.)

However, working with four organizations—in addition to IDFI there is Green Alternative, Transparency International Georgia, and the Georgian Young Lawyers Association—is a challenge in itself. Weinberg told techPresident that its difficult when the organizations don't work in the same way. They don't even agree on what seems like simple matters, like the definition of a Freedom of Information Request.

Examples of available information of OpenData.ge include “hotly debated dam projects, bonuses and salaries of state officials, [and] money spent on cultural events.” It also provides information on how and why citizens should file their own freedom of information requests.

Weinberg explained to techPresident that Georgia has substantially reduced low-level corruption in recent years. Transparency International notes that positive developments in the country include an electronic public platform introduced in 2010, and free online access to public records like the company registry and the land and property registry, all of which encourages government transparency.

Weinberg adds that the “overall government in Georgia [is] relatively responsive, but [OpenData.ge] is still an important tool to keep the pressure on them.”

Armenia is a much different story. There the journalists who launched PublicData.am often receive government responses on paper, and have to manually transcribe the information to the site. They also struggle to get mainstream media to address the need for transparency and government accountability.

Levon Barseghyan, activist and founder of the Journalists Club Asparez, the organization that runs PublicData.am, told the Open Society Foundation earlier this year that mainstream TV has so little credibility, Armenians watch it with “a vice versa approach.”

(The Open Society Foundation supported the launch of PublicData.am in 2010.)

The news site Asparez.am is one of Armenia's top 10 news sites, and in many ways PublicData.am is an extension of their journalism. They track public funding to schools and regional government by sending 3,500 or so freedom of information requests annually, to schools, communities, and government offices.

When requests for information are ignored or refused, the journalists take it to the judicial system. According to the Open Society Foundation, “In the four years since Asparez began its FOI campaigning, they have brought 55 lawsuits seeking full compliance under the 2003 federal FOI law. Barseghyan says they have won or resolved 54 of those suits.”

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network and the UN Foundation for their generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.

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