NGOs propose alternatives to Hungary’s new restrictive freedom of information act
Atlatszo.hu, together with a handful of like-minded NGOs, have put together a set of suggestions to correct the blatant errors and downright violations of basic rights contained in Hungary’s recently enacted freedom of information act. Instead of making the operation of the state and the spending of public funds more transparent, the government has taken another massive step towards keeping this information hidden from the public. We aim to set this right.
Atlatszo.hu has joined with NGOs K-Monitor (Watchdog for Public Funds) and TASZ (The Hungarian Civil Liberties Union), in supporting a drive by Transparency International to change Hungary’s new freedom of information act to address serious limitations in accessing data, crucial to the best interests of the public.
The new law gives state institutions the option to deny information requests into the details of how state funds are used if they involve preparation for “future decision”, but most importantly, it introduces a requirement that those who approach various institutions for information may have to pay for their queries. The various state bureaus may charge a fee if they decide that the request for information places an unwarranted additional workload on the staff. Besides being highly arbitrary grounds for denial, the financial costs are a natural deterrent to even attempting to find out important information.
Readers of Atlatszo will know that we make regular use of information filings, and many of our breaking stories have come from going through the details of information requests, or pursuing further investigations based on initial findings, in court if necessary.
Therefore, we are happy to join K-Monitor and TASZ to back a proposal from Transparency International which would not only rectify the flaws that the new law introduces, but would in general help Hungary catch up with its regional peers in ensuring greater transparency.
The main points:
State-owned companies regularly deflect freedom of information filings, saying that the law does not apply to them. They do so despite multiple court rulings to the contrary. Political parties enjoy exemption from filings, even though up to 90% of their financing comes from the state.
- A law that requires political parties to give detailed accounts of how they spend their public funding.
- Parliament to legally clarify that state-owned companies must obey the same transparency laws that apply to all state organization.
- Parliament to confirm in law transparency principles already contained in the constitution, in order to enable access to crucial information.
Standing regulations require all state institutions to make information relevant to public interest freely accessible, and also to publish the most relevant details online. However, there are no sanctions if these requirements are not met. It is also common for municipal governments, ministries or other directly state-funded agencies to fail to release data, even in the face of a binding court ruling.
- Leaders of state-owned institutions which refuse to release information, even with a valid court ruling, should be held personally accountable.
- Parliament must pass a law to withhold the salary of any top executives at state institutions who fail to comply with binding court decisions to release required data.
- According to the constitution, there is a general right of access to publicly relevant information, and the freedom of information law is meant to establish the requisite transparency. Currently a large portion of the public administration which involves the most important information is carried out on paper. Public employees spend hours scanning documents, which even then are not organized or transferred into a manageable digital database. If the state were proactive in terms of freedom of information, it would mandate the creation of a digital administration regime, which could be realized and operated for a fraction of cost of the current system.
- Parliament must require state institutions to manage data crucial to the public in an electronic, standardized system that is also accessible via their websites.
- Parliament must pass a bill requiring recipients of state funds to also make public the terms and progress of contracts which are state-funded, making the details accessible on their websites. Should they fail, their funding should be withheld.
The new law is a hindrance to transparency – it introduces payment obligations to civilians, journalists and NGOs seeking important public information, requiring them to cover all the labor costs needed to do the research. This means applicants will have to pay the expenses of the already useless manual scanning of papers, instead of the state encouraging the creation of a digital database and online access that would remove these concerns. Furthermore, the grounds for rejecting information filings is also expanding, and state organizations may now refuse requests claiming national security concerns or copyright violations.
- Parliament must declare that copyright violations and any future decisions must not hamper access to crucial information.
- Parliament must abolish the fee on public information queries.
- Parliament must remove passages in the civil code that exempt the handling of certain budget funds from transparency regulations.