Russian Government Heeds Civil Society’s Call for Access to Information Law

27 January 2009

Moscow, Russia — On January 21, 2009, the same day that US President Barack Obama took decisive steps for transparency and accountability in the US government, the lower chamber of the Russian Parliament, the State Duma, passed the Bill on Ensuring Access to Information about Activities of State Organs and Organs of Local Administration. The law will come into force on January 1, 2010, after it has been approved by the Federal Assembly and signed by President Medvedev—both actions are expected as early as next week.

After three readings, the passing of this bill is a clear victory for widespread campaign of public and legislative efforts dating back to 2002. Of all bills introduced by the Russian government, this bill holds the record for longest time from its introduction in January 2007 to being approved. The Duma approved the draft bill in the first reading as long ago as April 18, 2007, but the second reading did not occur until December 26, 2008, and final approval on January 21, 2009.

A pioneering Russian organization, The Institute of Freedom of Information Development led by prominent human rights lawyer Ivan Pavlov, organized a public campaign “For Passing the Law on Access to Information” encouraging citizens to write letters to President Medvedev, lobbying the legislators and educating government officials. The National Report on Freedom of Information in Russia prepared by the Institute and published in September 2008 became the catalyst in the final passage of the bill, which won an overwhelming Duma majority of 427 out of 450 deputies.

According to the Institute’s analysis, the new law will bridge the previous gap between the right “to freely seek and obtain information about the activities of state organs and organs of local administration,” proclaimed in Article 29 of the Constitution of the Russian Federation, and the actual administrative practice. The bill stipulates that “Basic principles of realization of the right of citizens and organizations of access to information about the activities of state organs and organs of local administration are the openness and general accessibility of information, fullness and reliability of information, observance of rights and interests of third parties in providing information, and accountability of state organs and organs of local administration for violations of rights of users (customers) of information.”

For the first time in Russian history, the bill establishes the presumption of openness of information about the work of state organs with the exception of information classified as state secrets. The bill establishes a time frame of 30 days within which a government agency is obligated to respond to a citizen’s request for information.

In the spirit of President Medvedev’s interest in using new technologies, the law specifically instructs government agencies to disseminate information about their activities on the Internet and to make their websites open to all citizens. Importantly, the bill also establishes that information provided in an electronic form should be available free of charge. User fees will be applicable only in situations where multiple paper copies are requested, where postage is involved, or where the scope of the request is very large. The fees will be established by federal agencies and organs of local administration and published in open sources. Other forms where information should be provided free of charge include informational stands in government buildings, libraries and archives, and information provided orally.

The bill settles a controversial issue previously contested by Russian freedom of information advocates—whether the citizen has to show that the information requested “directly affects his rights and freedoms.” Under the new law citizens are not required to show any justification for their requests. The bill also establishes accountability of government officials if they fail to provide the requested information. It also allows citizens to sue the government for damages incurred as a result of violations of their right of access.

The bill passed by the Duma incorporated recommendations from the Institute of Freedom of Information Development in their September 2008 National Report on Freedom of Information in Russia. The Director of the Institute Elena Golubeva remarked that “the passage of this bill should have a positive influence on the current situation in the country. The right to information, openness, and transparency of the organs of state power, accountability, which officials must feel before the citizens—all these are inalienable parts of democracy. Without them, existence and development of a law-based state is impossible.”

The passage of the bill received very limited coverage in mainstream Russian media, but was hailed by members of the transparency and human rights community. There is still a great deal of skepticism in the society’s reaction to the bill due to the historical lax attitude to law among Russian bureaucrats and the prevailing culture of corruption. But the new law is targeted precisely at them.

LINKS

Bill on Ensuring Access to Information about Activities of State Organs and Organs of Local Administration (in Russian)

Institute of Freedom of Information Development

Constitution of the Russian Federation (in Russian)

The Constitution of the Russian Federation (in English)

Official Site of the State Duma

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