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EDITORIAL

Learn to seek and ye shall find

A few days after being granted one of the most important rights to freedom - access to information - Slovaks went to their phones, faxes and emails and asked some searching questions.
"What's the IQ of the Prime Minister?" one anonymous caller asked.
While maybe the topic of bar-room conversation, and an amusing one at that, one of the first questions to be asked of authorities since the Freedom of Information Law came into effect on January 1 might have been a bit deeper.

A few days after being granted one of the most important rights to freedom - access to information - Slovaks went to their phones, faxes and emails and asked some searching questions.

"What's the IQ of the Prime Minister?" one anonymous caller asked.

While maybe the topic of bar-room conversation, and an amusing one at that, one of the first questions to be asked of authorities since the Freedom of Information Law came into effect on January 1 might have been a bit deeper.

But the fact that the question was asked, that someone did make the effort to use the new law, is one of the earliest milestones in Slovakia's development of 2001.

The government is predicting that more and more people will make requests. Currently 10 a day, the level is likely to go up dramatically by the end of the year if - and this is the big if - people know how to, and that they should, ask for information.

Early signals are that people know about the law. More than 60% of the people in Košice are informed of it and how to get hold of information, according to one study. But no one has yet gauged how many people are actually going to take advantage of their new right.

The law's author, Ján Langoš, is convinced, as are many other observers both within and without Slovakia, that Slovak society will be more healthy if questions are asked. But asking for information does not come easy to many Slovaks. Years of being told what to do, secrecy over information and a suspicion of anyone who wanted to know more than the price of a loaf of bread has bred, among all generations, an unwillingness to look for information.

The problems are certainly rooted in the past, but have unfortunately lingered into the present through a singular failure of successive governments to educate Slovak citizens as to their rights and duties as citizens.

Under communism the almighty úrad was just that - the font of all knowledge and power, not to be questioned, and serving as a provider of information on its own terms, and not on those of the populus that most needed it.

When the revolution came in 1989 the thirst for information didn't and the Slovak governments since the formation of the state in 1993 have done little to make sure that people know that they can and should ask for information.

NGOs were left to promote the Freedom of Information Law, a law which in most developed democracies is taken as a given right of citizenship. It was they, far and above any state bodies and almost to the point of exclusivity, who did the hard work in informing as many people as they could that they needed to go and ask questions.

The law itself didn't even gain the approval of the government legislative council and it was only at the last minute that parliamentary deputies, led by Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda, who had claimed the law as the cornerstone of the government's fight against corruption, put in a big lobby for the law to get through.

It will be somewhat unsurprising then, if we discover in six months time that the number of requests actually hasn't gone much above ten a day. People may be not just reluctant to ask for information, but just unaware of how to do so.

One of the most important laws Slovakia has passed over the last decade has been virtually ignored by the people who should have been parading it around, announcing its taking effect with a fanfare of trumpets and, if they chose to do so, even for political party gain.

Maybe the government didn't want to draw attention to the launch of the law because someone might have started asking questions about how much effort they put into promoting it in the first place.

If the government wants to show people that it is trying to create a society that is clear, open and as transparent as any state in the West, it has taken a good step in introducing the new law. But if it wants to really create that state, and not merely putting on a show that it is, it will have to do far more in the future to promote its most important laws.

Whoever called the new information centres and asked for Dzurinda's IQ may not have asked the most demanding of questions in exercising their new right (although if pushed a few political commentators would admit to being more than a bit curious) but they did it all the same.

No thanks to the government, let's hope that more people follow the example.

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