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New public information bill proposed

Watchdog groups say changes are a step in the right direction.

The CT scanner scandal cost Pavol Paška his post as speaker of parliament.(Source: Sme)

THE PROPOSED amendment to the law on the free access to information, which still needs the approval of the Slovak parliament, is a welcomed step forward although most agree there is still more room for improvement.

The Ministry of Justice, which oversaw the drafting of the bill, argues that Slovakia has some of the most liberal laws in Europe when it comes to public access to information and that the revision keeps the current standard while removing bureaucratic barriers. The aim is that the public administration does not need to prepare extensive documents or background research instead of somebody else, Justice Minister Tomáš Borec explained, as cited by the SITA newswire.

“It is far from ideal, but nevertheless improves the current state of affairs,” said Peter Kunder from the Fair-Play Alliance, one of the organisations that consulted on preparing the draft law.

The Association of Towns and Villages of Slovakia (ZMOS) considers the law on the freedom of information to be one of the key tools in building the relationship between the people and the public authorities, ZMOS spokeswoman Marta Bujňáková told The Slovak Spectator. She said that there is a lot of leeway for abuse in the old law, valid since 2001.

“The revision of the law is a result of not easy compromises and only its application in practice will show whether all powers and duties were clearly and comprehensively formulated and space for its abuse, either from the view of applicants as well as the obliged people, was eliminated,” said Jozef Dvonč, the ZMOS chair, as cited by SITA.

Problems with current law

In general, provisions of the existing law are not clearly defined, according to ZMOS, and open to ambiguous interpretation. It threatened the legal security of the members of the public that were seeking information from public authorities as well as those officials tasked with providing access.

In order to prepare an amendment to the law, the Justice Ministry formed a group which included representatives from non-governmental organisations and ZMOS. It worked on the draft revision for two years. The revision to the law on free access to information amends the conditions, process and extent of the free access to information. It requires the government bodies, municipalities, higher regional units, and the authorised legal and civil entities to enable access to information on management of the public resources, administration of the property of state, municipality or higher regional unit; the environment and about services and activities arising from an agreement.

As the main obstacles Kunder lists the limited enforceability of the law, and the larger incapacity or lack of willingness of the police, prosecutors and courts to reveal, explain and penalise corrupt behaviour.

The law helped to uncover an overpriced purchase of a computed tomography scanner for a hospital in Piešťany which shocked Slovakia in November 2014. It resulted in the resignation of the speaker of parliament Pavol Paška and also other figures in top positions in health care. In reaction to the Piešťany purchase, but also other suspicious public procurements that followed, the parliament pushed forward a new public procurement law.

Kunder of Fair-Play Alliance considers the proposed changes as something that enables the state to guarantee access to at least the most necessary information.

“To maintain correctness, it is necessary that the law states the rights and duties clearly and does not give leeway for abuse,” said Bujňáková.

What to expect 
from the new law

All the participating parties agree that corruption is a complex issue that cannot be solved by a single law. However, they hope that the proposed law can help.

The original law on the free access to information was passed with an aim to enable the public to access the contracts, agreements and invoices of the state and regional administration. However, publicly owned companies could opt out of the law easily as uncovering their financial statements and transactions would give an advantage to their opposition.

“The amendment brings more specific definition of the duties of the responsible people, including the responsibilities of the municipalities, and also addresses the application of the requirements up to the degree that they can be compelled legally,” said Bujňáková. “However, not all the requirements on the part of the citizen sector or from the representatives of the public administration can be evaluated as fully acceptable.”

Access to information does not apply to information that is not available, including the opinions and un-written viewpoints.

Transparency International Slovakia (TIS) says the new law will deal with technical problems, but also admits continued reservations.

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