This article is a good description of the Freedom of Information (#foia #opengov #opendata) situation in the Balkans. Due to my work in the region, I recognise lots of what is described here. My work in the region, such as in Serbia, has let me encounter various institutions willing to use evasive action to prevent the release of information.
In essence this is not all that different from what (decentral) government entities in other European countries do as well. Many of them still see increased transparency and access as a distraction absorbing work and time they’d rather spend elsewhere. Yet, there’s a qualitative difference in the level of obstruction. It’s the difference between acknowledging there is a duty to be transparant but being hesitant, and not believing that there’s such a duty in governance at all.
Secrecy, sometimes in combination with corruption, has a long and deep history. In Central Asia for instance I encountered an example that the number of agricultural machines wasn’t released, as a 1950’s Soviet law still on the books marked it as a state secret (because tractors could be mobilised in case of war). More disturbingly such state secrecy laws are abused to tackle political opponents in Central Asia as well. When a government official releases information based on a transparency regulation, or as part of policy implementation, political opponents might denounce them for giving away state secrets and take them to court risking jail time even.
There is a strong effort to increase transparency visible in the Balkan region as well. Both inside government, as well as in civil society. Excellent examples exist. But it’s an ongoing struggle between those seeing power as its own purpose and those seeking high quality governance. We’ll see steps forward, backwards, rear guard skirmishes and a mixed bag of results for a long time. Especially there where there are high levels of distrust amongst the wider population, not just towards government but towards each other.
One such excellent example is the work of the Serbian information commissioner Sabic. Clearly seeing his role as an ombudsman for the general population, he and his office led by example during the open data work I contributed to in the past years. By publishing statistics on information requests, complaints and answer times, and by publishing a full list of all Serbian institutions that fall under the remit of the Commission for Information of Public Importance and Personal Data Protection. This last thing is key, as some institutions will simply stall requests by stating transparency rules do not apply to them. Mr. Sabic’s term ended at the end of last year. A replacement for his position hasn’t been announced yet, which is both a testament to Mr Sabic’s independent role as information commissioner, and to the risk of less transparency inclined forces trying to get a much less independent successor.
Governments in the Balkans are chipping away at transparency laws to make it harder for journalists and activists to hold power to account.
Last month 27 year old Slovak journalist Jan Kuciak was murdered, together with his fiancée Martina Kušnírová. As an investigative journalist, collaborating with the OCCRP, he regularly submits freedom of information requests (FOI). Recent work concerned organized crime and corruption, specifically Italian organised crime infiltrating Slovak society. His colleagues now suspect that his name and details of what he was researching have been leaked to those he was researching by way of his FOI requests, and that that made him a target. The murder of Kuciak has led to protests in Slovakia, and the Interior Minister resigned last week because of it, and [update] this afternoon the Slovakian Prime Minister resigned as well. (The PM late 2016 referred to journalists as ‘dirty anti-Slovak prostitutes‘ in the context of anti-corruption journalism and activism)
There is no EU, or wider European, standard approach to FOI. The EU regulations for re-use of government information (open data) for instance merely say they build on the local FOI regime. In some countries stating your name and stating your interest (the reason you’re asking) is mandatory, in others one or both aren’t. In the Netherlands it isn’t necessary to state an interest, and not mandatory to disclose who you are (although for obvious reasons you do need to provide contact details to receive an answer). In practice it can be helpful, in order to get a positive decision more quickly to do state your own name and explain why you’re after certain information. That also seems to be what Jan Kuciak did. Which may have allowed his investigative targets to find out about him. In various instances, especially where a FOI request concerns someone else, those others may be contacted to get consent for publication. Dutch FOI law contains such a provision, as does e.g. Serbian law concerning the anticorruption agency. Norway has a tit-for-tat mechanism built in their public income and tax database. You can find out the income and tax of any Norwegian but only by allowing your interest being disclosed to the person whose tax filings you’re looking at.
I agree with Helen Darbishire who heads Access Info Europe who says the EU should set a standard that prevents requesters being forced to disclose their identity as it potentially undermines a fundamental right, and that requester’s identities are safeguarded by governments processing those requests. Access Info called upon European Parliament to act, in an open letter signed by many other organisations.
Four weeks ago I asked all 25 municipalities in my Province for their spending data, as reported in so called IV3 files to the Dutch national statistics office. As all municipalities use the same format, this makes it possible to compare spending and budgets across communities, for instance as is done at openspending.nl
Because I asked 25 government bodies the same question at the same time, it also makes for interesting comparisons on how each of them deals with requests for information, and how that compares to the legal obligations in place in the Freedom of Information Act (WOB, FOIA).
Today is day 28, and that is the end of the initial period, stated in the law, government bodies have to respond to requests. So how did the 25 municipalities do?
As of today I have received 15 out of 25 requested data sets (60%). The shortest response time was 4 days, and the last week, as the deadline was approaching, saw most activity.
Just over half (14 out of 25, 56%) turn out to only accept FOIA requests on paper, and not through e-mail. This is an mostly unnecessary obstructive effort to reduce the number of citizen requests received, and especially to prevent overlooking requests and thus penalties.
Five municipalities have announced postponing their answer with (the legally defined) additional 4 weeks. Four have a few days of the first 4 weeks remaining (the days used for me responding on paper where the original e-mail wasn’t accepted). One municipality is now officially late.
All in all a pretty good result thusfar in my opinion.
I have approached all 25 municipalities in my province with a freedom of information (foia) request for local spending data. This is a little side project that serves two purposes:
Bringing together spending data for the entire region
Establishing the FOIA readiness and processes of municipalities
Where does my money go? The first financial transparency open data project.
OpenSpending: getting local spending data
The main trigger for this is the OpenSpending project which exists as a global project, but also has a separate national Dutch clone at openspending.nl by the Open State Foundation. All Dutch municipalities report their spending and revenue in a fixed format, called IV3, to the Dutch Statistics Office CBS on a quarterly basis. If this data would be available for all municipalities, it would enable great comparison opportunities. Right now, only the data for the city of Amsterdam is available.
So last October I did a FOIA request in my home town Enschede, to get the spending data, and promptly received it within a week. That data is now findable through the Enschede city data portal. Now that openspending.nl announced it is ready for more data, I decided to try and get some for my entire region. Last Monday I sent out 24 FOIA requests to municipalities in my province for their IV3 files.
FOIA readiness and process assessment
Now that I have send out 24 identical FOIA requests for spending data, and have the original one as benchmark, this provides good opportunity to compare the way municipalities deal with FOIA requests. So that provides the second purpose of this exercise.
I will track the progress of my 24 FOIA requests, and document the results. Thusfar 5 out of 24 have let me know their digital communication path is closed for FOIA, so I have posted letters to those. One (1) municipality quickly confirmed my request, properly recognizing it as a FOIA request and stating it had been forwarded to the right person internally, a handful of others automatically confirmed reception of my e-mail.