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JUSTICE MINISTRY PROPOSES CHANGES TO FREEDOM OF INFORMATION ACT

Information could become less free: NGOs

WHILE the wording of the amendment to the Freedom of Information Act has not yet been published, the Justice Ministry's efforts to change the act have already provoked big worries for non-governmental organisations.
They are expressing urgent fears that the changes will limit access to public information.
The Slovak Justice Ministry says the upcoming amendment will enable the blind and visually impaired to have equal access to public information. The current law does not solve this problem, the ministry says.

WHILE the wording of the amendment to the Freedom of Information Act has not yet been published, the Justice Ministry's efforts to change the act have already provoked big worries for non-governmental organisations.

They are expressing urgent fears that the changes will limit access to public information.

The Slovak Justice Ministry says the upcoming amendment will enable the blind and visually impaired to have equal access to public information. The current law does not solve this problem, the ministry says.

"They have as much right to be informed as all other citizens, nothing more and nothing less," ministry spokesperson Michal Jurči told The Slovak Spectator. "First we negotiated with the Union of the Blind and Visually Impaired, so that we would not offer them something they were not interested in. They welcomed it."

Peter Wilfling, the lawyer for the Citizen and Democracy NGO, agrees with the ministry's declared intention of providing information in an accessible form (in Braille, on sound recordings or in magnified writing) to disabled citizens who request it.

On the other hand, he believes the problem should be solved in a more complex way, not in that law alone, he said.

"If the authorities send summons in official matters, decisions or warnings - which citizens receive most often, probably - in those formats, the procedure should be done in compliance with other laws, not just with the information law," he told The Slovak Spectator.

Another question is whether each authority will have the capacity and resources to translate information into Braille, he said.

Emília Sičáková-Beblavá, president of the Transparency International Slovakia international organisation, thinks fears that the information act will be rolled back are reasonable, as the current ruling coalition has tried to curtail it several times already.

She mentioned then-Smer MP Edita Angyalová's effort to change the Advertising Act last year, which failed in parliament. Then in February, the ruling coalition amended the Act on the Tripartite (government, unions and employers), and thus codified the provisions around closed-door cabinet meetings.

Thirdly, the government refused to make public a sound recording of the first cabinet meeting of Prime Minister Robert Fico's government, even though the information act allows this, Sičáková Beblavá said. There is even a District Court ruling saying the government is obliged to publish this recording when a member of the public asks for it.

In spite of this, the government did not do it. Political analysts suggested it was not done so that Fico's government could pass legislation letting them sack state secretaries nominated by the Mikuláš Dzurinda government, and thus violate the law.

Asked by The Slovak Spectator whether it was acceptable that the public still doesn't know what happened at the first meeting of Fico's government, Jurči answered: "Justice Minister Štefan Harabin does not know the details of this 'mega-scandal', and so it is not possible to pinpoint what the problem was."

One well-known case of denying access to information dates back to the time when Slovak National Party (SNS) chair Ján Slota was mayor of Žilina.

"For some time, the City of Žilina did not provide any information at all, and every request for information from citizens was refused," Wilfling told The Slovak Spectator. "Mayor Slota claimed there was an error in the law, and that according to law he did not have to provide any information. The courts upheld that this practice was unlawful."

"We see here several attempts to curtail the access of public to information, and sometimes they are even successful," Sičáková-Beblavá told The Slovak Spectator. "We see the spirit of limiting information. Now if the current ruling coalition decided to do this, it has a parliamentary majority. More or less nothing stands in its way."

Ondrej Dostál, the president of the non-governmental Conservative Institute and vice-chair of the Civic-Conservative Party (OKS), agrees.

"You have to be concerned that the ruling coalition will use any opening of the Freedom of Information Act to attempt to curtail it and make it less effective," he said.

He considers the current act a well-constructed instrument for citizens to exercise their constitutional right to information.

"That is why it represents a problem for many politicians and officials, and why they repeatedly try to amend it," he said.

Wilfling added, "The Information Act has always been a thorn in the side of those who find it inconvenient that the public can check up on their activities."

Speaking for the ministry, Jurči took a clear stand on whether the basic principle of the Freedom of Information Act - what is not confidential, is public - will be threatened or not. He said the most important question is what should be public in the first place.

He thinks the financing of NGOs, for example, should be public, as they claim to be independent.

"But Justice Minister Štefan Harabin thinks ministry staff are entitled to the protection of their privacy, as they are not political nominees," he told The Slovak Spectator. "The minister would embrace the same property declarations for judges, MPs, members of government, policemen and prosecutors. Common people should not be harassed, but constitutional officials and politicians should be supervised. This is true: what is not confidential should be public."


Information relatedto corruption


According to political analysts from the NGOs, the possible curtailing of the Freedom of Information Act will immediately be reflected in the rise of corruption in Slovakia. Sičáková-Beblavá thinks one of the basic measures to prevent corruption - or to reveal it - is granting access to information.

"It is much easier to uncover cases and to discuss, let's say, political mistakes and political corruption, if this access to information is there," she said. "We see a very clear connection here."

Wilfling added that quick access to a wide range of information is a necessary for voters to make decisions in elections.

"Only a citizen who can check on politicians and authorities, and who has precise information about them, can really decide freely," he said. "If the access to information is curtailed, true democracy in Slovakia could gradually become just an illusion.

"It could become merely a vote by poorly-informed or manipulated citizens."

Sičáková-Beblavá said that while the solution of corruption in Slovakia is not ideal yet, the country is well on its way.

"Transparency has been established, because the access to information has been secured by law," she said. "Really, moving in the opposite direction would be very bad. It would also be bad for corruption, as I repeat - we have seen no other anti-corruption efforts now."

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