The State Inspector’s Service Finalized Examination of Lawfulness of Disclosure of Mobile Phone Numbers’ of Nika Gvaramia and Tea Tsulikiani

2021-05-24 17:36:09

On 2 February 2021, at the plenary session of the Parliament of Georgia, during parliamentary debates, Tea Tsulukiani, Chairperson of Education, Science and Culture Committee of the Parliament of Georgia disclosed the mobile phone number of the Director General of LLC “Mtavari Arkhi”.

Later that day, the journalists, Eliso Kiladze and Nana (Nanuka) Zhorzholiani, via social network “Facebook”, disclosed the mobile phone number of Tea Tsulukiani, the Chairperson of the Education, Science and Culture Committee of the Parliament of Georgia.

In the course of the inspection, Tea Tsulukiani, Eliso Kiladze and Nana (Nanuka) Zhorzholiani were asked by the Service to provide information on when, in what way and for what purpose they obtained disclosed mobile phone numbers, as well as, on what legal basis and purpose they disclosed the information. Eliso Kiladze and Nanuka Zhorzholiani provided the Service with the requested information. Information was not provided by Tea Tsulukiani.

To assess the lawfulness of disclosure of Nika Gvaramia’s telephone number at the session of the Parliament of Georgia, the State Inspector’s Service found the disclosed information on Nika Gvaramia via various sources. It was established that Nika Gvaramia’s telephone number is available trhough public sources.

The Service also analyzed national and international regulations and relevant case law on the scope of privacy, personal data protection and freedom of expression of public figures. When making a decision, the status of the holders of the telephone numbers and of the persons disclosing the numbers, nature of the disclosed data, national legislation and international standards on parliamentary activities and status of the member of parliament were taken into account.

Given that a member of the Parliament enjoys immunity and is granted wide margins of freedom of expression when exercising parliamentary activities, disclosure of personal data by him or her in the course of parliamentary activities cannot not become a ground for imposing restrictions on parliamentary immunity. The purpose of granting parliamentary immunity to members of the Parliament is to enable them to participate in important debates without fear of observations, restrictions or editing opinions, as well as fear to appear before the court or other similar body. Immunity is a guarantee for a member of the Parliament to protect him or her from imposing responsibilities by “outsider” (other branch of the state authority). Therefore, it protects the member of the Parliament from potential endless legal disputes over his or her views. Such disputes could lead to restriction of the freedom of expression of their views by members of the Parliament to such an extent that the possibility of effectively exercising their parliamentary mandate would be questioned. In the light of the above, the State Inspector did not impose administrative responsibility on Tea Tsulukiani.

At the same time, it is important to note that in connection with the agenda of the plenary session on 2 February 2021 (one of the issues discussed was the decision to terminate the powers of the deputies), public interest towards the meeting increased significantly. In such a situation, disclosing the phone number of a person (even a public official) is a dangerous precedent of data processing. The statement made by the Chairperson of the Education, Science and Culture Committee of the Parliament of Georgia, Tea Tsulukiani during the debates at the session of the Parliament of Georgia, was clearly unnecessary in the context of the ongoing debates.

The State Inspector noted in the decision that the use of internal parliamentary mechanisms in such cases (including the disclosure of personal data by a Member of Parliament) would be an effective means of resolving the issue, which fully reflects the practice of the European Court of Human Rights. The competence of the so-called self-regulatory mechanism - the Ethics Council is to respond to violation of legislation by the Member of Parliament.

The decision of the State Inspector is based on the case law of the European Court of Human Rights and the opinions of the Venice Commission.

As for the fact of disclosing Tea Tsulukianis’s phone number by journalists Nana Zhorzholiani and Eliso Kiladze, it was established that they obtained the phone number within the framework of journalistic activities. The Law of Georgia on Freedom of Speech and Expression protects the professional secrecy of a journalist. As for the disclosure of the phone number, according to them, Tea Tsulukiani is a political official and is accountable to the public. Citizens have the right to know her phone number in order to contact her on various issues. Accordingly, informing the public was indicated as the objective of the disclosure by them. As journalists Eliso Kiladze and Nana Zhorzholiani disclosed the telephone number of a public figure (Chairperson of the Education, Science and Culture Committee of the Parliament of Georgia) obtained within frames of professional activities, the State Inspector's Service, taking into consideration the importance of journalist’s freedom of expression, interpreted public interest widely and the matter was resolved in favor of the freedom of expression and information.  Accordingly, Nana Zhorzholiani and Eliso Kiladze were not held administratively liable.

The State Inspector underlined the mission of the self-regulation mechanism - the Georgian Charter of Journalistic Ethics and stated that it has an important role to play in establishing a balanced practice in respect of interrelation between the freedom of expression and the protection of privacy and personal data within journalistic activities.

The State Inspector’s Service also notes that respect for human rights is of paramount importance both in parliamentary debates and journalistic activities. A particular problem with respect to the debate on the right to privacy arises when it comes to the right of privacy of public figures. Receiving information about a person in the news often does not deprive him/her of his right to privacy. When a person's right to the protection of personal data and the freedom of expression come into conflict with each other, freedom of expression should not undermine the importance of obligation to protect personal data.

The State Inspector’s Service urges every member of the public, regardless of their status, to take special care when disclosing personal information of others.