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Law on free access to information in works

In a plan which may curtail the frustration of journalists in search of government-held information, deputies for the SDK party are working on a law which would require that state institutions and local offices provide information to media and citizens upon request.
Though the Slovak constitution stipulates that people should have free access to information from offices whose activities "affect public life," Slovak legislation has no law which outlines how this process is to proceed. The result, critics say, is a system in which government officials can arbitrarily decide which information is and is not public, leaving journalists and others denied facts with little legal recourse.


Ivan Šimko (centre) is one of the main framers of an information law.
photo: TASR

In a plan which may curtail the frustration of journalists in search of government-held information, deputies for the SDK party are working on a law which would require that state institutions and local offices provide information to media and citizens upon request.

Though the Slovak constitution stipulates that people should have free access to information from offices whose activities "affect public life," Slovak legislation has no law which outlines how this process is to proceed. The result, critics say, is a system in which government officials can arbitrarily decide which information is and is not public, leaving journalists and others denied facts with little legal recourse.

Though journalists report that access to information now is better than under the former government of Vladimír Mečiar, officials still occasionally refuse to reveal information to the media and the public, they said.

"Even when I was aware that the information I requested wasn't confidential, it was sometimes denied to me," said Peter Tóth, a well-known investigative journalist for the daily Sme, of reporting under the former regime.

"If there was a law that would stipulate that officials would have to hand over information, a law which would make clear which information was available and which was state secret, a law water-tight enough that they could not play with it, that would be very helpful," he said.

Currently, the law is being debated within two separate Slovak Democratic Coalition (SDK) working groups, one headed by MP's Ivan Šimko and Ján Budaj, the other by the party's liberal democratic faction leader, Ján Langoš.

The two drafts differ mainly in how they deal with access to secret information about the activities of the former secret police in the communist Czechoslovakia before 1989.

Langoš said he believes such information should be made public, maintaining that people who suspect that they had been under surveillance or had their records compiled by the police should have access to this information upon request. Langoš himself dealt with these matters as an Interior Minister in the 1991-1992 federal Czechoslovak government.

But Šimko and Budaj maintain that the secret information law should be dealt with separately as it was potentially divisive and was no longer the main issue at stake.

According to Šimko, the new bill will specify which offices and institutions will be bound to provide information and in what way they must do it. The law will also stipulate what information can be considered confidential, whether dealing with state, business or officially secret documents.

"This law will mainly affect the state administration bodies and local governments, but also other subjects which are somewhere between state and private corporations if that they deal with public cash flows, or if they are entitled by law to deal with the rights and duties of citizens," Šimko told The Slovak Spectator in an interview.

Parliament, for example, will have to publish on the Internet all stenographic records of the its sessions, listings of how deputies voted, and attendance records of the deputies at the parliamentary sessions.

Šimko continued that the law would be applied to governmental and presidential offices, courts, police departments, as well as municipal offices and local state authorities. Officials will be fined from 100,000 to one million Slovak crowns ($2,300 - $23,000) for breaches of the law, he added.

According to western experts, the law is vital to the laying of another foundation stone of Slovakia's democratic development.

Kurt Wimmer, an American legal analyst with the Washington-based law firm Covington and Burling, told The Slovak Spectator on June 11 that "this law really is not just for the benefit of the press, but clearly for the benefit of the public."

Wimmer also warned, however, that there was often significant resistance to passing such laws in post-Communist countries.

"The overall mind-set of the post-communist authorities has been that information should be kept secret, andthe law needs to turn that into a presumption that information should be public. That's something the law can change partially, but there also needs to be a change in the minds and outlooks of the decision-makers."

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