New authorities should demonstrate a different attitude towards the public’s right to know

On the occasion of 28 September – International Right to Know Day, the Centre for Civic Education (CCE) expresses hope that the new leadership of the Parliament and the future composition of the Government will base its work on the transparency principle. This implies respecting, not denying, the public’s right to know how decisions are made and implemented by institutions and their leaders.

Nove vlasti da pokažu drugačiji odnos prema pravu javnosti da zna

The progress of a democratic society in its base has the public’s right to know what the elected representatives of the authorities are doing on its behalf, but also of all public sector bodies that are financed from the budget to which citizens contribute. In that respect, it is necessary to make a priority change to the Free Access to Information Law or draft a new one, as the existing one has further closed the system and prevented the public from knowing, and the presented new draft has already been assessed by the civil sector and the expert public as a step backward.

It is contradictory to the proclaimed commitment to the Europeanization of society that public sector bodies remain closed in the area of ​​information of public importance. This is especially seen in the so-called “sensitive issues” related to cash flows, employment, contracts with privileged companies, etc. The latest amendment to the Free Access to Information Law left too much to the “free will” of the representatives of the bodies, ie. to assess how much information should be available to the public. This maintains the semblance of transparency, while essentially the system became even more closed.

The first-instance authorities continue to demonstrate considerable irresponsibility in respecting the public’s right to know, as evidenced by the more than 3,500 complaints lodged with the Agency for Personal Data Protection and Free Access to Information. Most of them violate the right of the public to know by the silence of the administration. Also, it is questionable how the Agency for Personal Data Protection and Free Access to Information handles these complaints. In the annual Report on the state of protection of personal data and the state of access to information for 2019, the Agency states that it managed to “persuade” the first instance body in 857 cases to respond to the submitted request, which significantly shortened the procedure. However, this report does not provide insight into the average time of the Agency itself for providing a response and practice indicates that it is outside the legal deadlines, which also violates the public’s right to know.

The uneven practice of public sector bodies that interpret legal provisions in a different manner, as well as the form of submitting requests for free access to information is of particular concern. The CCE has noticed, in the recent period, a negative trend in which this process is administratively burdened to limit the public’s right to know. Unfortunately, the Agency for Personal Data Protection and Free Access to Information is not helpful there as it substantially stands on the side of those bodies that put obstacles in the access to information, instead of removing those obstacles and interpreting the law in the spirit in which it is written.

The CCE expects of the new ruling majority at all levels of exercising the government will demonstrate sensitivity to issues that are key to establishing mechanisms for verifying and monitoring the process of creating and implementing public policies. Otherwise, we will not be able to state qualitative changes, and they are crucial in the further democratization of society.

International Right to Know Day was established in 2002 at a joint meeting of representatives of mostly non-governmental organizations in Sofia, Bulgaria. It is celebrated around the world to promote the right to free access to information, as one of the fundamental human rights, but also to encourage citizens who enjoy their rights, and the authorities to be transparent in their work.

Mira Popović, Democratization and Europeanization programme coordinator