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The power of the few

THANKS to non-governmental organizations and human rights activists backed by hundreds of citizens, the country will not lose modern and effective legislation governing the Freedom of Information Act.

THANKS to non-governmental organizations and human rights activists backed by hundreds of citizens, the country will not lose modern and effective legislation governing the Freedom of Information Act.

Working together, these entities persuaded the ministries of justice and interior to preserve the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in the form it was adopted in 2000.

On August 24, the Slovak cabinet adopted a draft revision to the FOIA. If the revision becomes law, it essentially reverts the FOIA to its original, more powerful form. The draft revision requires that the salaries of state and public officials be part of the public domain. It also reduces the circle of government employees eligible for protected personal data status.

The attempt by state officials to extract the teeth of the FOIA inspired a wave of comments and objections by citizen and non-governmental organizations. In a so-called opposing proceeding, which makes it possible for 500 citizens to oppose legislation, these organizations were able to reverse history.

The Slovak Spectator spoke to Vladimír Pirošík, a public interest lawyer and activist who represented the public during the dispute over the Freedom of Information Act.

The Slovak Spectator (TSS): Non-governmental organizations managed to defend the original Freedom of Information Act, thereby preserving access to information in the form it was granted in 2000. How did you manage to persuade the Justice Ministry to accept your arguments?

Vladimir Pirošík (VP): By three factors: professionalism, mobilization of the public and a little bit of good luck. Based on almost five year's of experience with infolaw [the Freedom of Information Act], I think we managed to come up with strong arguments as to why this extraordinarily modern law should not be changed. However, it was equally important that our objections were supported by the political watchdog organization Fair Play Alliance and Transparency International Slovensko, along with 700 people and non-governmental organizations. And then, we have to be grateful that, on the other end of the table, there was a partner willing to hear us. Unfortunately, this is still a rare thing at many Slovak bureaus.

TSS: Have you managed to eliminate all the serious legislative barriers introduced posthumously which would have made the free access to information by Slovak citizens difficult?

VP: In the draft amendment we saw several landmines: a trial to weaken the enforceability of the law by leaving out the part on violating the right for information; unjustified prolongation of the request disposition periods; and the trial to take away the public's right to access information on uncompleted proceedings, for example, different evaluations or serious standpoints. After the negotiations with the ministry, everything remains unchanged and the law has been cleared of the landmines.

TSS: What is the next step for non-governmental organizations on this issue?

VP: The adoption of the draft in this "combed" form should prevent the continuing concealment of the salaries of public officials and also strengthen citizens' access to information related to discussions of local parliaments. It will also bring down some barriers standing in the way of information on the acquirers of state property. It means that it is a good law, which further widens the right for information and thus it has our full support.

TSS: Some public officials, mainly from municipal governments, argue that the FOIA has been abused. They say people view it as a convenient way to access information that does not serve to educate the public but rather benefit specific individuals. How do you respond to similar arguments?

VP: It is a complete lack of understanding of the essence of the infolaw. For example, in the USA where the law on the freedom of information has existed for almost 40 years, it has been used for "individual benefit," which means it has benefited those running businesses. But running a business is not Satan's work; the more successful the business, the more full the state treasury, which also means that the state servant himself might have better salary conditions. By the way, Slovak municipalities should really give up their 15-year-old mantra of "public finances yes, public control no". It is no longer a game with pebbles. Next year they [autonomous municipal or regional governments] will get a total of Sk110 billion (€2.85 million) [transferred from the state budget in order to manage public affairs].

TSS: What are the most frequent violations of the FOIA? Were the violators eventually punished?

VP: The most frequent violations are the abuse of trade secrets, the enormous protection of private data and the so-called tacit refusal. This last is our office's specialty. The tacit refusal is when an entity completely ignores the request for information. Self governments have the biggest problem abiding by the FOIA, then come the ministries. On the contrary, the regional and district state offices apply the law most efficiently.

As far as the sanctioning concerned, not every citizen who fails to obtain the information uses his or her right to start a proceeding on the violation of his right. However, the one who decides to do so is mostly successful. The fine is usually between Sk1,000 to Sk4,000 (€26 to €104) but sometimes more. By the way, on Monday (August 22), Žilina mayor Ján Slota was found guilty of violating the FOIA.

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