Atlatszo.hu loses a battle but wins a war!
Three years ago Atlatszo.hu approached the Foreign Affairs Ministry with what was a simple request to disclose personnel details. This matter escalated into a lengthy court proceeding and although we failed in our original endeavor, the outcome is better than we could have expected. It requires that there be an amendment to the legal code which will make the operations of the state bureaucracy more transparent.
In the autumn of 2012, Atlatszo.hu approached the Foreign Affairs Ministry to publish its personnel files, as the ministry had failed to meet its legal obligations to disclose the information. The ministry refused the request citing diplomatic reasons, prompting what to our surprise would become a very lengthy legal process.
The first instance court ruling stated that the ministry’s concerns were unfounded and ruled in our favor. In response to this, the ministry declared all personnel information as classified. The effect of this was to create a legally absurd situation, since even stating that a person is an employee of the Hungarian Foreign Ministry would constitute a breach of confidentiality and result in criminal charges.
The appeals court was aware of the curious circumstances of the case, but chose to dodge responsibility by saying it had no jurisdiction over a ministry’s autonomy in classifying its own data. Based on that reasoning, any and every state agency could legally declare its internal documents and information confidential, and thereby completely prevent the public from having any oversight over how taxpayer money is spent. It would even preempt any “nosiness” by protecting documents that are bound to raise the interest of the press. This was unacceptable, and we determined to take the matter to the Constitutional Court.
The ruling is in and it turns out we were both correct: the appeals court was correct in saying that it couldn’t investigate the legitimacy of a ministry declaring its materials as classified, but also agreed with Atlatszo.hu’s claim that this practice is in breach of the constitution. The jurors gave parliament until the end of May to remedy the situation and amend the legal code.
As such, the original effort failed, we will never learn the personnel details of the Foreign Ministry. Nonetheless, we can assure the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade – the successor to the ministry that was operating in 2012 – that as soon as the new legislation takes effect we will be quick to file a new inquiry.
The original article in Hungarian was published on 15th February 2015.