STATE-owned companies will have to publish a list of all their contracts, while citizens will be able to request publication of individual documents – requests with which firms will have to comply within eight days. Municipalities will no longer have to scan and post all documents such as invoices and orders, but only list selected basic data in a more transparent form. However, as of next year state organisations and municipalities will have to publish information about all invoices and orders, irrespective of their size, rather than being able to keep smaller deals secret. These changes are envisioned by the draft revision to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) that the government of Iveta Radičová sent to parliament on August 17.
Watchdogs and advocates of free access to information have been on alert after state organisations submitted a series of comments to the FOIA draft amendment during the review process, many of which would have restricted access to information – or even punished citizens for requesting it. Due to the large volume of comments, Justice Minister Lucia Žitňanská divided the proposed changes to the law into two steps: the first revision, now approved by cabinet, pertains only to publishing contracts and invoices online.
“We are not solving any other issues in this revision,” Žitňanská said, as quoted by the TASR newswire on August 17.
Žitňanská said that the duty to publish complete scanned documentation was the main objection of municipalities, which had called for a simpler technique for publishing orders and invoices so that basic data could be drawn directly from accounting documents and posted on their websites.
The second revision will address other proposed changes to the FOIA, which has already been amended eight times since 2000.
The current government’s requirement to publish public contracts online, which took effect on January 1, 2011, was designed to improve transparency in how public money is spent.
It has been presented as a show-case initiative by the government, one that has helped the media report some questionable spending at Slovak ministries and state-run companies.
According to Žitňanská, the current draft also specifies the range of contracts that those falling under the legislation have to publish, since there have been problems interpreting the current rules, SITA reported.
“It was not obvious from the text of the law whether trading companies with state co-ownership or co-owned by municipalities were obliged to publish all the documents or not,” said Žitňanská.
Based on the draft, commercial companies that are 100-percent owned by the state or municipalities must publish details of all contracts online. However, companies will be no longer obliged to publish full-text contracts if they have been concluded in the form of “regular commercial contracts” that form part of the business of the companies, according to Žitňanská, as reported by SITA. Such contracts will still be indicated in the central register of contracts and thus, according to the minister, “it means that we will know about all the contracts”. Citizens will be able to request full copies of contracts which are not subject to commercial secrecy and are not classified.
The cabinet on August 17 changed its original draft, which would have made it possible for companies to conceal the bulk of their contracts except for those involving significant investments. State-owned companies argue that the requirement to publish contracts has put them at a competitive disadvantage.
But lawyers working with the non-governmental organisation Via Iuris, as quoted by Sme daily, posed the question: “who will guarantee that firms do not refuse to publish information when requested, on the grounds that it is a commercial secret?”
Žitňanská said that partially state-owned companies are already obliged by the FOIA, or info-law as it is commonly called, to publish the requested information and that the draft only addresses the unclear situation regarding publication of contracts.
The review process
Via Iuris earlier this year warned that if some of the comments submitted on the draft revision to the FOIA were adopted then it would mean a huge step back and a significant weakening of the rights of journalists and citizens to access information.
For example, ministries and state offices are proposing that a penalty of up to €1,650 (in some cases) be imposed on citizens for requesting information, and have suggested that existing sanctions against bureaucrats for failing to comply with the info-law be removed, according to Via Iuris.
They are also proposing that joint-stock companies in which the state holds a majority share be relieved of the obligation to provide information about their economic performance. The Interior Ministry also proposes to make information on the decision-making activities of offices classified, which would mean that citizens could, for example, no longer obtain information on the ongoing process of issuing licences for construction projects which might affect their health or the environment, according to Via Iuris.
The Finance Ministry also proposes including some vague provisions suggesting that every “document the publication of which could endanger the activities and justified interests” of the person obliged to provide the information should be classified, along with information the publication of which would contravene contractual obligations.
Via Iuris warns that this provision provides broad scope for abuse: “it would be enough for an office to claim that the published information might threaten its activities”, or to agree, for example, with a businessman to classify any contract as ‘confidential’ and therefore conceal it.
The Ministry of Economy proposes that citizens who have been provided information on the wages and bonuses of managers should not be allowed to disseminate that information. A citizen would thus not be allowed to publish the information on the internet or forward it to other people, according to Via Iuris. As for the duty to provide information on the wages of managers, Dagmar Hlavatá of the Economy Ministry’s press department told Sme that the ministry considers this to be “discrimination against state employees,” and that there is a difference between “publishing” and “giving access to this information”.
The Slovak Information Service (SIS), Slovakia’s main intelligence agency, proposes that it be completely exempted from the law, which would mean that it would no longer be required to provide any information, even about its handling of public funds.
22. Aug 2011 at 0:00 | Beata Balogová