PM Irakli Garibashvili slammed a large group of civil society organizations, which are pushing for a legislative amendment to limit government’s surveillance capabilities, and said that this campaign group is “damaging” Georgia’s international reputation and “undermining” country’s security.
The campaign, called This Affects You, which unites dozens of leading non-governmental organizations, was launched in early March under the slogan “We Are Still Eavesdropped”. The campaign focuses on lobbying for legislative amendments, which, the group says, will help to introduce effective mechanisms for proper oversight over government surveillance practices.
The bill has been under consideration for over ten months within a working group at the parliamentary committee for legal affairs, led by GD MP Shalva Shavgulidze, with participation of civil society organizations and invited foreign experts. The bill was discussed with its first reading by relevant parliamentary committees on April 3. But on April 4 government announced about setting up of an inter-agency group with participation of representatives from the Interior Ministry, Justice Ministry and prosecutor’s office to look into the draft – the move, which was seen by the campaign group as an attempt to drag out the process of adoption of the bill.
The dispute comes down to one main issue – the government, in particular the Interior Ministry, wants to remove from the bill a provision, which would significantly restrict or possibly even end its capability to have a direct access to telecommunication companies’ server infrastructure. The Interior Ministry argues that after receiving court warrant to carry out surveillance, it should not be required to also notify communications operators as it will increase risk of leaking confidential information and undermine operative activities of the law enforcement agencies.
Secret surveillance, privacy rights and personal data protection have been a source of concern in Georgia for years already, but the issue became subject of intense discussions with an active government engagement last year and the authorities have pledged to establish strong mechanisms both on legislative and executive level to prevent illegal surveillance. But despite this pledge concerns still remain as law enforcement agencies maintain so called 'black box' devices in the server infrastructure of major telecommunication companies, giving security agencies direct access for simultaneous monitoring of thousands of mobile phone numbers.
Speaking at a government session on May 1, PM Irakli Garibashvili said that the bill pushed by non-governmental organizations “amounts to disaster”.
Adoption of that bill would have “endangered efficient work of country’s security system,” he said.
“I can tell you without any exaggeration that [adoption of this bill] would have created threat to the state security and we did not let it happen,” Garibashvili added.
He said that This Affects You campaign is falsely claiming that citizens are still being eavesdropped.
“When our country’s image is being strengthened on the international arena and showing progress, these people say, including through ads on which they spend thousands and hundreds of thousands of Lari, in order to undermine country’s image and I literally call it activity for the purpose of undermining the country, it can be called nothing but activity to damage country’s interests,”
“This campaign that ‘everyone is being eavesdropped’ is a campaign directed against the state’ and simply there is no need for such [campaign] at all, because there is a strong political will and we have already eradicated that wrongful practice [of illegal surveillance] when we came into power,”
“Door is open and there is no need to break through the open door,” he added.