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Access to information bill nears debate

Democracy, in the words of former US President Lyndon B. Johnson, works best when people have access to all information that can be published without endangering national security.
Johnson spoke these words in front of the US House of Representatives during the 1960's in defence of a freedom of information law he wanted passed. Now, over three decades later, a group of Slovak politicians and NGO's are using the same reasoning to convince their own parliament to support a law on access to public information.
The bill, if passed, would guarantee all Slovak citizens free access to public information, including contracts signed by state companies and institutions like the FNM national privatization agency.


Ján Budaj, a member of parliament for the SDK party, has written a draft.
photo: TASR

Democracy, in the words of former US President Lyndon B. Johnson, works best when people have access to all information that can be published without endangering national security.

Johnson spoke these words in front of the US House of Representatives during the 1960's in defence of a freedom of information law he wanted passed. Now, over three decades later, a group of Slovak politicians and NGO's are using the same reasoning to convince their own parliament to support a law on access to public information.

The bill, if passed, would guarantee all Slovak citizens free access to public information, including contracts signed by state companies and institutions like the FNM national privatization agency.

Soňa Szomolányi, head of the political science department at Bratislava's Comenius University, hailed the law as promising to bring "more transparency into the world of politics."

"With this law, we are going to put Slovakia on a level with developed countries like Norway or Denmark," echoed Ján Budaj, a member of parliament for the ruling SDK party and one of the sponsors of the bill. "But Slovak white-collar workers are not up to the standards of their Norwegian or Danish colleagues. Therefore, we have to work hard to make sure the law works in practice, not just on paper."

Similar laws exists in the US, Canada, New Zealand, France and now in the Czech Republic as well. According to a study done by the international corruption watchdog Transparency International, eight of the 10 least corrupt countries in the world have a law guaranteeing access to information, while none of the 10 most corrupt countries have such legislation.

Ivan Chodák, an equity analyst with CA IB Securities, said that such a law "would bring greater public control, which is good. But I would stress that the owners of state companies - the government and individual ministries - should bear responsibility for setting their house in order."

"This law will just be a first step," agreed Szomolányi. "People will have to use their rights to request information. They will have to change their attitudes towards state officials and start treating them as public servants rather than masters of society."

Three drafts

There are currently three drafts of the information law battling for support in Slovakia. The first draft was submitted by two members of parliament for the SDK party, Ján Budaj and Ivan Šimko; the second was prepared by Ján Langoš, another SDK MP, while a third was designed by a 'general committee' of about 100 Slovak NGO's which have long supported such a law.

The three drafts differ in detail but agree in principle. All state and public institutions will have to publish information on their activities and decisions on the Internet, or display it on public information boards. If anyone wants more detailed information on a state contract or tender, public officials are required to produce it in 10 days or face disciplinary proceedings.

While all three drafts have the same goals in mind, the NGO bill has been criticized by the authors of the parliamentary drafts. Budaj called some of the proposals contained in the NGO version "unrealistic," such as a clause requiring state firms to produce information about their business activities.

Budaj said the NGO draft would require state run companies like gas utility SPP or gas retail chain Benzinol to publicize their plans. "But if Benzinol were required to go public with its price policy for the next three months, a privately-owned competitor like the Austrian OMV might easily defeat Benzinol," Budaj said. He added that organised crime could abuse its sudden access to public information to extort money from other businessmen.

Budaj said he hoped his draft would see its first reading in parliament this November (bills have to pass through three readings to become law). Final approval might come in the year 2000, he said.

Even if Budaj's draft is approved, he faces an uphill battle to see it put into practice - many regional state officials say they aren't aware of the impending law, and don't have money to implement it even if it does pass parliament. "You are the first person to tell me about such a law," Ladislav Pomothy, director of the Galanta District Office told The Slovak Spectator on October 29. "As usual, nobody from Bratislava has consulted with regional representatives. One of the drafts says that my office would have to put all information on a web site. But my office has neither the money nor the manpower to provide citizens with this kind of information," Pomothy said.

Budaj said he would not give up easily. "I have proposed the creation of a national web site which would be funded by the state budget. All state institutions would present their information there." If such a proposal still proved too expensive, Budaj vowed to "call my friends at the Slovak Academy of Sciences, and they will do it for free."

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