Thousands of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are registered in Georgia. According to Civil Registry data, the number of civil society organizations rose from 14,000 to 16,000 over the period 2010 to 2011. Out of this multitude of organizations, many are just formally registered and the share of active NGOs is smaller. The level of awareness in society about NGO activities is, generally, low. For example, a 2011 survey conducted under the Policy, Advocacy and Civil Development in Georgia program of the East West Management Institute (EWMI G-PAC) shows that the population has little understanding about activities in the civil sector. Those who do have information, the survey reports, generally believe that NGOs only care about their own wellbeing. Indicators of trust towards NGOs are not high either, with 18 percent of respondents showing trust in them against 23 percent mistrusting them. Furthermore, according to a 2011 USAID survey, society is aware of only a handful NGOs, including the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association (GYLA), Transparency International Georgia (TI), the Liberty Institute, the Open Society Georgia Foundation (OSGF) and the International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy (ISFED).
The USAID survey shows that NGOs are relatively skilled in identifying important problems and seeking information, but what seems to be more difficult for them is acting adequately for the public interest, seeking advocacy resources and drawing up action plans.
The problems facing the non-governmental sector are complex for various reasons – be it the dependence on donors or having incorrect strategies for action. Despite this, there are several NGOs in Georgia which are both popular among society and also have a certain clout. Moreover, as the various surveys suggest, awareness about and trust towards NGOs is gradually, albeit slowly, increasing year after year. According to the USAID civil society survey, for example, awareness increased from 2011 after NGOs stepped up their criticisms of human rights violations and social or legal problems. Presumably this increased awareness was also facilitated by the broader coverage of their activities in the media.
Public awareness about certain NGOs must have recently increased given their intensive activity in the pre-election period and their involvement in the electoral process. During that period, the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association, Transparency International Georgia and the International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy, were especially active. Along with other organizations, these three NGOs spearheaded a civil awareness campaign “That Concerns You” and actively participated in considering issues related to the election environment and legislation.
The activities of NGOs working on such topics as media independence, election law, self-government, and acts assessed to be political pressure were conspicuous in the pre-election period. These same issues remain topical after the election of the new government. It is thus interesting to investigate how active NGOs have been in the post-election period and to consider what issues they continue to work on.
One of the most illustrious examples of civil society activity in the past few months, which occurred within the framework of the civil movement “That Concerns You”, was the successful demand for the so called “must-carry” principle to be introduced. This legislation required Georgian cable television providers to transmit or “carry” the broadcasts of all Georgian channels that produce news programs. The regulation passed on 29 June was, however, temporary with its term commencing with the official announcement of the date of the parliamentary election and expiring the day before the election. Since the elections cable operators thus have no obligation to continue with the must-carry principle. It is worth nothing that audience numbers sharply increased for those TV channels that were broadcast on the large cable networks as a result of the adoption of the must-carry regulation. As a post-election survey conducted by the US National Democratic Institute (NDI) shows, 46 and 53 percent of the population watched Maestro and Channel 9 TV companies, respectively. Before the regulation was passed both channels could only be received via satellite antennas. In the run up to the parliamentary election, the initiators of “This Concerns You” were actively demanding the continuation of the must-carry obligation. However, since the election no such demands have been raised. The Chairperson of the GYLA, Tamar Chugoshvili, says the issue does remain and will be voiced when necessary, but so far there has been no need to do so as the cable operators have continued to broadcast the additional channels required by the legislation, without being officially liable to do so.
“This Concerns You” also closely watched and actively reacted to events unfolding around the media in the pre-election period, including the seizures of Global TV satellite antennas and, later, Maestro TV antennas as they were being distributed to the population free of charge, this, according to the audit service, constituted voter bribery. The rationale for distributing these antennas was to expand the reach of Maestro TV and Channel 9, the latter owned by Bidzina Ivanishvili’s wife, to a wider audience in the run up to the elections. Media and non-governmental organizations united under the public movement “This Concerns You” deemed those seizures illegal and voiced their protests against them. In terms of the media, the case that resonated most after the parliamentary elections was the financial inspection of the Georgian Public Broadcaster (GPB). Although this issue was assessed as being “pressure” by the 58th NATO Parliamentary Assembly in its resolution, local NGOs did not show much interest. Some NGOs, for example, Transparency International Georgia, limited itself to urging the management of the GPB channel to protect its employees from political pressure. The GYLA, for its part, demanded that the state audit service conduct an unplanned inspection of the GPB in connection with its debts pardoned under a general tax amnesty for media outlets and a conflict that has arisen with Alania, the managing company of GPB’s Russian-language channel PIK.
It is worth nothing that TI, the GYLA and nine other civil society organizations are members of the Media Advocacy coalition, which was established in 2011. That coalition drafted legislative amendments related to, among other things, full transparency of the ownership and funding of media outlets. TI continues monitoring the media environment to date. In the two months since the parliamentary election, the civil sector (TI, the ISFED and the GYLA) has reacted to the ownership of Channel 9 (as well as of the other media outlets Info 9, Info TV and a share in the TV company Trialeti) by the family of Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili – the NGOs have called on the Ivanishvili family to draw a “dividing line” between politics and the media outlets owned by them.
Speaking about the post-election period, one cannot avoid touching upon the ongoing process of arrests and interrogations of former senior officials as well as the employees of various public bodies. Despite the fact that these prosecutions have resonated across the world, with the international community and the world’s media expressing concerns and assessments, Georgia’s NGO sector has not yet made any reaction. Speaking to Tabula magazine, Tamar Chugoshvili, the Chairperson of GYLA, has said that her organization keeps tabs on all these cases and will make an assessment upon the beginning of court hearings. Thus far, however, one can say that these processes have not yet fallen within the scope of NGOs interests; at the very least no immediate reaction has been made.
Instead, the NGO sector has been actively involved in the issue of awarding the status of political prisoner and political exile to some of those people arrested under the rule of the former government. A group working on compiling a list of political prisoners, which was led by the Chairperson of the Parliamentary Committee of Human Rights, Eka Beselia, and comprised 15 NGOs, including the NGO Former Political Prisoners for Human Rights, was tasked with studying whether any political motive could be detected in the materials from court cases. At the end of the day, Parliament awarded the status of political prisoner to 190 persons and the status of being in a political exile to 25 persons. However, during the initial stages of the activities of this group, the representatives from the NGOs Article 42 of the Constitution and the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association left the group declaring that they could not assume responsibility for those people on the list of cases which they themselves did not study. Nonetheless, the GYLA recommended that 54 persons be granted the status of political prisoner and Article 42 of the Constitution recommended a further five. These individuals were all included in the final list.
One more issue that is especially topical is the pressure placed on self-government bodies since the change in government. A segment of the non-governmental sector reacted to this by issuing a joint statement (from the GYLA, the ISFED, TI and Article 42 of the Constitution) expressing “extreme concern” over the pressure placed on self-government bodies in various municipalities. They called upon “every political party” to refrain from exerting pressure, while appealing to law enforcement bodies to investigate the events.
When speaking about the activities of the non-governmental sector, one should also note that the post-election period has seen the establishment of several such new NGOs, the activities of which are notable. Among such are the Georgian Association for Reforms (GRASS), which is more oriented on foreign policy and defense issues, and the House of Tolerance, which has voiced a protest against the violation of Muslim’s rights in the village of Nigvziani.