Critics Score Proposals to Change Danish FOI Law

12 October 2012

Proposals to change the Danish freedom of information law seem designed to prevent access to materials about the development of policy, according to critics.

The government and opposition parties negotiated to produce a package of modifications, but several other parties and interest groups are now raising objections.

The most contentious provision would severely limit access to documents used in the development of policy, said Nils Mulvad, the chairman of Åbenhedstinget, an organization with the slogan (Google translated): Meeting place for all who want more public transparency.

Several new restrictions would be placed on access in this area, Mulvad explained in an interview with Documents transferred from ministry to ministry, or shared with parliament, would not be disclosable, he said. So if the government presented a proposal to the opposition “there is silence,” Mulvad said, adding, “That is really, really bad.”

In addition, limitations would be placed on access to the earliest documents prepared by certain top ministry officials, he said. Disclosure of “descriptive” portions of such documents would be circumscribed, Mulvad said.

Termed ministerbetjening in Danish (translated as minister serving), this area has been contentious for years. It was a disputed area three years ago when a divided special commission on FOI reform proposed restrictions after seven years of discussions. Those recommendations faced objection in parliament and elections caused work on them to be set aside until recently the five leading parties on Oct. 3 announced their consensus deal (in Danish). (See previous report.)

Denmark’s FOI law is “far behind right now,” said Mulvad, who supports some of the proposed changes.

The negotiated agreement was described when announced, but has not been put into legislative form. The formal bill is not expected until early next year, with debate beginning in February.

In the meantime, opponents plan to request information on how the new proposals would have applied to past situations in which disclosures were made.

“Despite the consensus between the five parties that negotiated the changes, the three remaining parties – Liberal Alliance (LA), Dansk Folkeparti (DF) and Enhedslisten (EL) – are demanding that the new law be subject to a proper debate before it is presented in parliament in February,” reported Peter Stanners Oct. 9 in the English language Copenhagen Post.

“The government parties have made a U-turn and now apparently have no problem hiding ministerial work when they themselves are in power,” Pernille Skipper, EL’s legal spokesperson, told public broadcaster DR. “It is embarrassing, and it is all the more embarrassing because they have not bothered to have an open debate and negotiate with all the parties in parliament.”

The article also describes concerns that the proposal would limit access to the calendars of government officials. A recent scandal regarding taxes resulted after the publication Politiken was granted access to the calendars of top civil servants.

Mulvad praised some elements of the agreement. Easier access to government databases would be a positive outcome, he said. Current restrictions require overly specific requests, he said, limiting access to full databases. “There are a lot of undone stories in Denmark because of that,” Mulvad commented.

Positively, he said, the government recently opened up more databases and has pledged to release more in 2013 as part of its action plan prepared as part of its membership in the international Open Government Partnership. The database opening was applauded as an “historic breakthrough” in an article (in Danish) on the Åbenhedstinget website.

Another disappointing in the latest proposal, Mulvad said, is that it commits only to further experimentation with online access along the lines of the Norwegian system, which allows searches to turn up relevant documents. “They have been postponing it for so many years,” Mulvad said.

Nor would the proposals address deficiencies in the way appeals are handled he said. Currently, appeals move up the chair and possibly to the ombudsman. This takes a long time, he said and the only outcome can be a recommendation for the matter to be reconsidered.

Mulvad said he is waiting to see the detailed language on a proposed provision that will allow the government to terminate FOI requests if they take longer than 25 hours to handle with exceptions made for journalists and researchers from “recognised research institutes.”

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