Austria, With Worst Rated RTI Law, Resists Reform

25 February 2013

The country with the lowest-rated right to information law in the world has told a European human rights watchdog that it does not need to improve the law.

Austria came in 93rd out of 93 countries, according to the Global RTI Rating done by Access Info Europe (AIE) and the Centre for Law and Democracy (CLD). The groups compare the quality of the laws, noti implementation. Austria’s 1987 law scored 39 points on a scale of 150.

On Feb. 19, the Council of Europe Group of States Against Corruption  (GRECO) on Feb. 19 issued a report saying it “very much regrets” that Austria has not improved its RTI law. The Council of Europe is a nongovernmental body with 47 member countries that “seeks to develop throughout Europe common and democratic principles based on the European Convention on Human Rights and other reference texts on the protection of individuals.”

The most recent report is a follow-up to a previous compliance report for Austria, which found progress on many of the 24 recommendations made in 2008. Austrian officials, however, disagreed with the recommendation.

In Recommendation xiv, GRECO had “recommended with a view to facilitating access to information, to provide for precise criteria for a limited number of situations where access to information can be denied and to ensure that such denials can be challenged by the person concerned.”

Austrian authorities “opined, in particular, that the existing legal framework was already in accordance with the standards required by the recommendation, but GRECO stressed that the Evaluation Report had expressed concerns about access to information in practice and had therefore called for a more precise definition of the criteria for the limited number of situations where access to information can be denied.”

“The authorities maintain their position that no measures are necessary to implement the recommendation,” the report said, concluding, “GRECO very much regrets that no new information concerning the implementation of the recommendation has been provided.”

 Back in 2010, GRECO termed Austria’s arguments “not convincing.”

 In the 2010 Compliance Report, GRECO wrote:

67. The authorities of Austria state that from their point of view, the existing legal framework – in particular Article 20, paragraph 4 of the Constitution as well as the pertinent provisions of the General Information Act –is already in accordance with the standards required by the

recommendation. They specify that the Constitution guarantees general access to information, that there is only a limited number of situations where access to information can be denied and that any such denial can be challenged by the person concerned. They add that due to the requirements of the European Convention on Human Rights and the Protection of Personal Data Act more precise criteria pertaining to situations where access to information can be denied can not be provided.

69. GRECO takes note of the information provided with regard to the existing legal framework guaranteeing general access to information and the right to challenge denial of such access. However, GRECO wishes to stress that the evaluation report expressed concerns about access to information in practice and therefore called for a more precise definition of the criteria for the limited number of situations where access to information can be denied. No concrete measures have been reported in this respect by the authorities who instead refer to the requirements of the European Convention on Human Rights and the Protection of Personal Data Act which would make it impossible to define such criteria. However, GRECO draws attention to the fact that several other member States have managed to sufficiently specify such criteria/situations and it considers that the argument advanced by the authorities is therefore not convincing.

 Going back to 2008, the original GFECO Evaluation Team (GET), said:

The GET learned that a discussion had been going on over the last 10 years about the need for further freedom of information legislation, since the current General Information Act mostly regulates the right to apply for information but does not guarantee a general right of access. As a result, state bodies are free to refuse to provide information without having to justify their decision and even the Ombudsman is bound by official secrecy: s/he cannot inform a citizen of the reasons a request has been denied by the administration (s/he can only inform the applicant whether the request was processed adequately or not by the administration). Journalists met  shared with the GET their own negative experience, including when working on cases which had received significant media and public attention. In addition, it would seem that the civil servants’ confidentiality duty (Dienstgeheimnis) would lead to secrecy being the principle, and availability of information the exception. This situation is not satisfactory from the point of view of transparency of state authorities and makes it difficult for citizens and the media to exert control over the administration, which would contribute to the prevention of corruption. The GET therefore recommends, with a view to facilitating access to information, to provide for precise criteria for a limited number of situations where access to information can be denied and to ensure that such denials can be challenged by the person concerned.

 

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