Outcry as ministry tinkers with public access to information

A RECENT attempt by the Economy Ministry to underhandedly revise the law on public access to information, the so-called info-law, hit a raw nerve among the NGOs promoting transparency and fairness in politics.

A RECENT attempt by the Economy Ministry to underhandedly revise the law on public access to information, the so-called info-law, hit a raw nerve among the NGOs promoting transparency and fairness in politics.

The Economy Ministry submitted an amendment to the law on economic mobilisation for interdepartmental review, which concluded November 4. The changes turn out to interfere with the info-law, changing some of its provisions.

The info-law has been in place since 2000 and it has served as a tool for citizens to gain information about the activities of the municipal, regional, and state administration bodies. Based on the law, which is widely used by transparency watchdogs and journalists, citizens are entitled to receive information they request from state bodies.

Ever since the law was passed, public offices have been trying to limit the right to information and introduce changes that would allow them to hide information about their activities uncontrollably, Peter Wilfling from the non-governmental organisation Via Iuris told The Slovak Spectator.

In this latest incident, the Economy Ministry proposed to block access to contracts that were closed before 2011 by state bodies, municipalities, regional governments, public-service organisations, and state companies, including all invoices, orders, and other information connected with the contracts closed by companies in which the state is a major shareholder.

NGOs protest

After the Economy Ministry submitted its amendment to the law on economic mobilisation for interdepartmental review, Via Iuris launched a petition under a mass objection to the text of the amendment, saying it “seriously endangers the right of citizens for information”, as it significantly changes and limits the law on free access to information. The call for citizens to join was published on October 31.

“The changes proposed by the Economy Ministry are a big step backwards,” Wilfling said, adding that such limiting of the citizens’ right to access to information is unconstitutional.

While experts were engaging in a debate at the Justice Ministry about a major amendment of the actual info-law, the Economy Ministry came up with what Wilfling called “an absurd law” without any public debate.

“Citizens need to be on guard, because it can be expected that even when the Justice Ministry comes up with an amendment to the info-law, Minister Borec will face an immense pressure from other ministries and offices who demand curbing of the info-law,” Wilfling said.

The new law would also allow companies with investments from the state, regions, or municipalities, to keep secretive about their business. The ministry proposed to block public access to all contracts, invoices and orders that weren’t compulsory to be published on the Internet.

Former Justice Minister Lucia Žitňanská objects as well and called on Borec to intervene and withdraw the controversial paragraphs from the proposal. She accused Economy Minister Tomáš Malatinský of proposing unnecessary changes, “despite the fact that there is no known example when the publishing of information would lead to threatening security, protection, or defence of the Slovak Republic”, she said as quoted by SITA. There are many examples to the contrary, she said, where the public disclosure of such contracts helped to prevent the wasting of taxpayer money.

Ministries react

In reaction to the protests, the Economy Ministry and the Justice Ministry issued a joint statement in which they pledged to drop the provision that allows the contracts to be hidden.

The ministries accused Žitňanská of unnecessary politicisation of the issue and said that they have agreed even before her call to drop the provisions that interfere with the info-law from the amendment of the law on economic mobilisation, the SITA newswire reported.

An interdepartmental commission of the Justice Ministry, which includes governmental and non-governmental experts, including people from the Economy Ministry, will deal with the issue of access to information in the context of economic mobilisation, the ministries stated.

NGOs however aren’t content with the ministries’ response, saying that it is not enough of a guarantee that the info-law will not be seriously curbed in the future, Wilfling said.

“Only the Economy Ministry is responsible for its amendment, and it is the only one who can decide on its fate, and it did not inform anybody about the intention to withdraw the amendment,” Wilfling said.

The ministries deemed the mass objection unnecessary, but Wilfling maintains that it was the only way to to force the Economy Ministry to talk about its intentions with the representatives of the public.

“If the public did not organise mass objection, the amendment of the info-law authored by the Economy Ministry could have easily been proposed to the cabinet and the parliament,” Wilfling said.

The worrying thing is that the whole situation creates an impression that the Justice Ministry wasn’t aware of the intentions of the Economy Ministry, according to Wilfling.

“Therefore we are worried that the Justice Ministry does not have control over the amendment to the info-law, and cannot guarantee that the right to information will be preserved,” he told The Slovak Spectator.

Info-amendment on the way

The Justice Ministry’s commission is presently working on the major amendment to the info-law. One of the changes that the ministry is considering is to introduce fees for processing a request for information. The fee would be charged in case a person requests extensive information and the office in question would have to use greater amount of paper to provide it.

Meanwhile, a civic initiative named “For a good law on free access to information” called on the government to prepare a good amendment to the info-law, to which end they formulated 18 principles the law should fulfil.

“We will follow the process of preparation and passing of the info-law amendment carefully and we are ready to draw the public attention to any attempts to limit its right to the access to information,” the initiative members, among them people from the Centre for Philanthropy, Transparency International Slovensko, Via Iuris, Fair-Play Alliance, the Association of Citizens of Towns and Villages of Slovakia, and others, wrote as quoted by SITA.

Wilfling hopes the amendment to the info-law could help clarify some issues that arise in the interpretation of the law. It should secure that the information about the work of public officials couldn’t be classified as personal data, and strengthen the responsibility of the public officials for violating laws.

“The amendment however cannot contain provisions that would allow state bodies wilfully and uncontrollably hide information or wilfully charge fees from citizens,” Wilfling said.

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