Monday, October 6, 2008

Public Defender: replace "authoritarianism" with real democracy; opposition calls for free press

TBILISI, Georgia -- This country's fractious political opposition got together long enough to issue a joint statement today calling for a free press. President Mikheil Saakashvili has come under increasing criticism from political opposition and neutral non-government organizations over the past year for curtailing the independence of the media, especially television.

The most biting criticism has come from Georgia's Public Defender, Sozar Subari, who delivered a scathing public review of the government's record on democratic reform, civil liberties protection and market reform, among other issues. The Public Defender is essentially an ombudsman for Georgia's citizens with a ten-year term, and Subari is highly respected as a man of integrity. While many critiques of the government have smacked of political opportunism, Subari's seven-page report was an overall balanced view.

Subari called the existing system "authoritarianism" that should be replaced with real democracy. He derided Saakashvili's promise of a new round of reform, which he pledged at the UN, as merely superficial.

Subari called for establishing an independent judiciary and rule of law.

This is the most important next step towards greater reform, but few opposition parties have focused on it, according to Bakur Kvashilava, dean of the Georgian Institute of Public Affairs' School of Law and Politics.

It is evidence that the opposition doesn't have a much clearer concept of democracy than the current government, said Kvashilava.

Saakashvili's political opponents are using public frustration with the August defeat in Georgia's war with Russia to voice attacks on his administration. A former Saaskashvili insider and owner of one of the country's 3 major television networks, Erosi Kitsmarishvili, recently lashed out at his former ally, accusing him of subverting democracy in Georgia. Similarly, the ex-Prime Minister, Nino Burjanadze, delivered a long list of questions for the government to answer, such as: "Why the following documents signed by the Georgian authorities [in the aftermath of the August war] are not publicly accessible for the Georgian population?"

Several of the major opposition parties issued a statement today demanding media reform.

"There is no democracy without independent mass media and media freedom first of all means independence from the authorities. Today in Georgia all TV channels broadcasting countrywide are turned into a propagandistic tool of the authorities; instead of objective information mass media provides society with a virtual reality," the statement read.

The statement was signed by New Rights Party, Movement For United Georgia, Conservative Party, Labour Party, Republican Party, The Way of Georgia and Party of People.

The opposition control fewer than 30 seats in the 150-seat Parliament.

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