Awards Programs Reward Effort, Chastise Opacity

7 October 2013

By Toby McIntosh

Only this audience would laugh so heartily at five surrealistic stories about government denials of access to public information.

The incredulous appreciation of unfortunate stories stemmed from shared experience. The 100 persons attending the annual awards ceremony in Sofia, Bulgaria, were a community celebrating the pro-transparency efforts of journalists, activists and public officials.

“Golden Key” statuettes were awarded to five winners, who gave sincere and modest acceptance remarks with evident pride.

The evident energy in the room and the smiles of the winners were signs of success for the sponsors of the awards program, which was started 11 years ago by the Access to Information Programme. “This is our professional holiday,” one AIP staffer commented.

Awards programs concerning access information exist in at least half a dozen other countries, according to a preliminary Freedominfo.org tally. In recent weeks, awards were given in Armenia, Georgia and Russia.

The awards programs commonly reward a wide variety of actors in the right to know space: mainly journalists, activist and government officials. They also use negative awards to draw attention to poor government performance.

Variety of Awards Given

The Golden Key award-winners in Sofia on Saturday afternoon, Sept. 28, International Right to Know Day were:

–         Georgi Serbezov, a citizen from the town of Plovdiv, who  launched the free web portal http://zdoi.gkzj.org/ that accumulates the Supreme Administrative Court decisions and rulings under the Access to Public Information and makes them easy for search.

–         The National Movement “Ekoglasnost” for casting light on topics related to the nuclear power energy sector.

–         Doroteya Dachkova from the Sega Daily for obtaining  information about the process of pardoning carried out by the former president and on the sources of endowments to the Ministry of Interior, and the number of delayed cases in the Sofia City Court.

–         The Technical Control Inspection division of the Ministry of Agriculture and Food for a high level of transparency and accountability with its updated web site, including the disclosure of contracts. A ministry official was there to accept the award.

As expected, there was no one from the government to receive the Padlock anti-award. It was awarded in abstentia to the Council of Ministers of Bulgaria for backtracking on the practice introduced by the previous government of making accessible online the complete transcripts of the meetings of the Council of Ministers, as well as council administrative decisions.

As the time for wine and food neared, the nominations were read in “Tied Key” anti-award category, for “an absurd administrative decision on an access to information request.”

All the entries drew groans, but the judges picked the city of Sofia for its handling of a request about the security sectors in Sofia. The director of the Directorate “Public Order, Wartime Training and Emergency Management” responded that “in a global context such kind of information is of interest to terrorist and anarchical groups and organizations.” As a result, national security officials were informed about the requestor.

My translator whispered another good candidate story. A ministry told him to come down personally to get a requested document. They seemed confused when he arrived. A hunt ensued to locate the right official and the proper form. After the form was signed, however, he was told that the document would be emailed.

Other Anti-Awards

Other awards programs feature both positive and critical categories that sponsors hope will put pressure on public institutions.

The Armenian program includes features the Rusty Padlock award. In  Georgia one agency as the “most closed.”

Besides awards for the Russian “person of the year” and the “leap of the year,” there are a number of “anti-awards.”

In the United States, there’s a “black hole award” a “Nopee” and a “Rosemary.”

There appears to be no complete census of access-related awards, good or bad.

Many are given out around Right to Know Day.

In Canada, for example, the Grace-Pépin Access to Information Award from the Canadian Access and Privacy Association (CAPA) was presented Sept 28 to CAPA’s president, M. Laurence Kearley.

“Sunshine Week” in March is the more common time for giving out prizes in the United States.

Not all awards programs survive. One in India lasted several years. IFEX gave out “Africa’s first awards for activism on access to information” in 2011,” but apparently nothing since then.

FreedomInfo.org welcomes information about awards programs concerning access to information.

Armenia Holds Ceremony

The Freedom of Information Center of Armenia, with USAID support, held its 12th annual “Golden Key and Rusty Lock” award ceremony on Sept. 27.

The “Positive Award” for the state institution that has best applied the Armenian FOI Law was presented to the RA Ministry of Finance. The electronic register of the RA Government http://www.e-register.am/ was recognized as the best official website in terms of access to information.

The NGO that best used the right for access to information was the “Transparency International Anti-corruption Center” NGO. The winning media outlet was the http://www.panorama.am/ online media outlet.

Arayik Melqumyan, Judge of the Court of General Jurisdiction of Kentron and Nork-Marash Administrative Districts, was recognized as the judge “who had best upheld the right for access to information on behalf of those whose rights had been violated.” Lawyer Artak Zeynalyan was recognized as the most consistent advocate for the right for access to information.

This year “Special Positive Awards” were given to the government staffers who implemented the Armenia Country Action Plan within the framework of the Open Government Partnership and the RA Ministry of Diaspora “for providing the most official electronic answers to the e-FOI requests in 2013.”

The jury awarded the following institutions with Rusty Locks as a symbol of secrecy:

  • Negative awards for state institutions that have provided the most ridiculous official responses to inquiries were presented to the Republic of Armenia Ministry of Urban Development, the Ministry of Economy, the Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources, and the «Yerevan Parking City Service» CJSC.
  • A Negative award for a state institution which provided the latest responses to citizens was presented to the Yerevan Municipality.
  • A Negative award for the state institution which did not fulfill its FOI obligations, was presented to the Armenian National Assembly.

The independent jury is comprised of representatives of eight organizations working in the FOI sphere. The selection criteria for the most open and secret agencies can be found at http://www.foi.am/en/award-standards.

Russan Winner Picked by Voters

The Freedom of Information Foundation in Russia this year sponsored its second annual “Right to Know Awards,” although it prefers not to think of them as a competition.

The founder of the foundation, Ivan Pavlov said, “This is not a competition, not an attempt to uniquely identify the best and worst. It’s a way to draw attention to the problems of freedom of information, to conduct an audit of major events for the year. I am glad that the list of nominees got a large number of community projects and initiatives – a little understanding of the value comes to the right to information as a basis for a variety of civic endeavors to generate a dialogue between the authorities and society. ”

The winners are chosen by voters who go to the contest website. This year 1,211 unique visitors voted among 32 candidates in six categories. See contest rules (in Russian).

The Person of the Year “by a large margin” was Alexei Navalny. “He was nominated for the clever use of open sources of information in the fight against corruption and the promotion of ideas of civilian control,” according to the announcement

The Russian Legal Information Agency (RAPSI) won the Organization of the Year award for online coverage of court hearings and promotion of judicial transparency.

In the Project of the Year category, there was a close competition between the RosKomSvoboda/RUBLACKLIST.NET project aimed to promote Internet self-regulation and to help online resources wrongfully blocked by the government, and the WikiUIKi, an all-Russian database of election commissions to track quality of their work. The WikiUIKi won with a very small margin.

Roll-call voting results and online broadcasts at the State Duma’s official website were recognized the Leap of the Year.

The State Duma also won the Anti-Award nomination Anti-Organization of the Year, for “having approved knowingly inefficient laws.” The “anti-pirate” law has become the Failure of the Year “as a real hazard for development of Internet in Russia.”

Georgia Awards Based on Study

The Institute for Development of Freedom of Information (IDFI), with support of the Open Society Georgia Foundation, on Sept. 12 “revealed the most accountable and the most closed public institutions based on the public information disclosure data within the 2012 July to 2013 June period” based on a detailed study.

Awards “For Promoting Access to Public Information in 2012-2013” in Georgia were given to public institutions at an event attended by the Prime Minister, other public officials and representatives of media and nongovernmental sector.

Awards went to government ministries, other public institutions, universities and regional bodies. Named as “The Most Closed Public Institution in 2012-2013” was the Georgian National Energy and Water Supply Regulatory Commission.

Golden Keys and Padlocks in Africa

The Namibian chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa in October named The Motor Vehicle Accident Fund as the most transparent public institution and the National Housing Enterprise was denoted the most secretive. The former received the Golden Key Award while the latter got the Golden Padlock Award, according to a media summary.

MISA conducted a study between May and July 2013 to assess the level of transparency in the government and public institutions. The research adopted both qualitative and quantitative methods of data collection. Questionnaires were sent out to eight selected institutions comprising four ministries and four parastatals. The aim was to establish the transparency and accessibility of information of the chosen government and public institutions. Websites were critiqued on the usefulness and relevance of their information and how well these are organized.

Numerous U.S. Awards

Some awards in the United States go for work on “open government,” not strictly for FOI-related activity. But there are still quite a few, some are run by media organizations, others by openness advocacy organizations.

Prizes for FOI-related work are given in dozens of states, judging from a few hours of internet searching. There is no consolidated list, according to several persons at groups that sponsor contests.

Many awards exist at the state level.

For example:

–          The Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council in March, for the seventh year, bestowed its annual Openness Awards, or Opees. Both the liberal Center for Media and Democracy and the conservative MacIver Institute won. There’s an Opee for “Open Records Scoop of the Year” (the Scoopee) and the “No Friend of Openness Award” (the “Nopee”).

–          In Texas, the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas and the Texas Press Association use the Nancy Monson Spirit of FOI Award to recognize journalists. The foundation also presents the James Madison Award each year to journalists, politicians, academics, attorneys or vigilant citizens for outstanding achievements or distinction in the areas of open government, freedom of information and other related First Amendment issues. In 2013, the foundation launched the inaugural Open Government Lawmaker of the Year Award.

–          The New England Freedom of Information Coaliton this year inaugerated two FOI awards, A citizen won for a nine-year crusade that yielded an order refunding $53 million to New Hampshire public employees. The prize-winning journalist “cracked a shell of silence to expose misconduct in the New Britain, Conn., Police Department.” It also awards the 2013 Stephen Hamblett Award for a career promoting the people’s right to know.

–          The Tennessee Sunshine Hero award is given by the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government.

Similar sorts of awards also are given in California, Connecticut, Minnesota, Maine, Oklahoma, Florida and New Mexico. The list is no doubt longer.

At the national level, the U.S. Society for Professional Journalists sponsors the Black Hole Award “to highlight the most heinous violations of the public’s right to know” and a Sunshine Award acknowledges contributions to open government.

The Investigative Reporters and Editors this year started the Golden Padlock Award to honor a U.S. government agency for its “unrelenting commitment to undermining the public’s right to know.” The first winner was the U.S. Border Patrol. The group also has an award to honor an individual or organization “whose significant actions further open records or open government.”

The American Library Association has two awards to honor individuals or groups who have championed, protected and promoted public access to government information and the public’s right to know. The James Madison Award was established in 1986 to celebrate an individual or group who has brought awareness to these issues at the national level. The Eileen Cooke Award honors an extraordinary leader who has built local grassroots awareness of the importance of access to information.

The independent non-governmental National Security Archive, home of FreedomInfo.org,  established the Rosemary Award in 2005 to highlight the lowlights of government secrecy, and named the prize after President Nixon’s secretary, Rose Mary Woods, who testified that she had accidentally – while stretching to answer a phone call – erased 18 and a half minutes of a crucial Watergate tape.

Good Support for AIP Awards

One key to the success of the Bulgarian awards program, officials said, is the close involvement of the Access to Information Programme with the struggles of the requester community and the credibility of the selection process.

There were 39 nominations this year. A jury picked about five finalists per category. Two honorable mentions are given in each category.

The selection of the winners is based on“well-developed evaluation criteria in each category, verification, discussion and assessment of the received nominations.”The decisions are made by a jury consisting of members of Access to Information Programme team, as well as renowned journalists, public activists, representatives of NGOs. The jury sits twice in September before the Right to Know Day Awards Ceremony.

The  statuettes, made by Blagovest Apostolov, a Bulgarian sculpt?r, are the a main rewards, although for a fourth year, presents for two winners – a DVD player and a computer printer — were provided by Cantek Bulgaria and Tehnopolis Bulgaria. Damianitza JSC. The awards program gets financial backing from a variety of institutions and corporations, including the America for Bulgaria Foundation.

Interviews with all awardees will be published in the September issue of AIP monthly newsletter electronically disseminated to 2,300 subscribers. The ceremony was broadcast live on Internet: http://www.bta.bg/bg/pressclub/id/1069/. Pictures are uploaded at AIP web site: http://www.aip-bg.org/about/gallery/106076/.

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