2013: Information Freedom and Open Government

16 January 2014

By Asya Suvorova

This retrospective article appeared first in Russian on the website of the Freedom of Information Foundation, based in St. Petersburg, Russia. It is also here in English. It was translated by Inna Kremen.

Everything seems to have mixed up in the world: in European countries with advanced democratic customs, citizens regularly met difficulties with access to information, while in Africa, there is a FOI progress boom. Russia has its own way as always: on the one hand, Russian top authorities refuse to join the largest global initiative for governmental openness; on the other hand, the country continues developing the domestic openness agenda outlined in 2012.  Here, we review what has FOI gained and lost in 2013.

Let’s start with what has taken place abroad. In Germany, civil activists accuse the government of an attempt to formalize the idea of launching a governmental open data web portal. In their opinion, the portal launched by the German ministry for internal affairs provides not enough access to vast volumes of important data. More than three hundred independent civil experts signed an open letter concerning whether the governmental implementation of the openness idea would be viable.

At the same time, Canadian journalists conclude that FOI in Canada suffer a real crisis. In their report, The Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE)  state that the essence of democracy in Canada can be undermined since information is more and more often hidden due to “national security” reasons and excluded from open data lists, information publication is delayed, and information access system becomes “hollow”.

The state of affairs in Hungary is also of interest. The country has expressed intention to join the Open Government Partnership and presented the National Action Plan of its. However, a week later, the Hungarian parliament approved amendments to the national FOI act proposed by the ruling party. They contradicted the declared course towards openness in an amazing way; in particular, the amendments restricted access to socially significant data. Upon a large public protest campaign, President Janos Ader refused to approve the bill and returned it to the parliament for review and follow-up.

Good news came from Africa: in February, the Model Law on Access to Information was approved. Its text resulted from joint efforts of governments and civil experts as well as from active civil campaigns held in many African countries. Now, African states can implement a unified model adapted to the continent’s general needs. It can much facilitate the task of national FOI legislation formation.

In Russia, “freedom of information” has been most often cited in 2013 within discussions on censorship of Internet. The State Duma (lower chamber of the Russian parliament) has been continuing what they began in 2012: proposing a number of strict legislative initiatives contradicting time-spirit itself. One of the new laws allows to block any online resource fast and without any judicial procedure. Despite of a wide public campaign against the “anti-pirate” law (a petition at the Russian Public Initiative gathered 100,000 votes in its favor in quite a short time), the authorities refuse to cancel it. The battle for Internet freedom is going on.

The above-mentioned e-petition mechanism, the Russian Public Initiative (RPI), has been the 2013 major hope for public participation in decision-making, but review of the very first initiatives has lead to strong disappointment. Having gained the number of votes needed for review, these initiatives appeared to be transferred for review not to the State Duma (as it had been planned while developing the RPI mechanism) but to a special commission that, though having no relevant powers, decided upon feasibility of their implementation. The two petitions reviewed this year, the first for prohibition for officials to use too expensive cars and the second against the “anti-pirate” law, were rather inconvenient for authorities. The commission has not rejected them directly but its decisions transformed both initiatives into something quite different from the original. In his blog, Ivan Pavlov, FIF Board Chair, speaks in more details how the RPI works.

The key loss of this year is of course the withdrawal of Russia’s intention to join the Open Government Partnership. Our country should have joined the global openness initiative in 2013. Civil organizations took active part in development of the Russia’s National Action Plan for the OGP. However, in mid-May 2013, the entrance procedure was officially stopped. Russia has become unsatisfied by conditions for participation in the Partnership. In particular, Russian authorities have been disappointed due to absence of any warranties for a participant country’s investment attractiveness growth. Unfortunately, one hardly can hope for “reload” of our relations with the OGP.

Of course Russia has the national agenda for governmental openness fixed by federal laws, Presidential decrees, and governmental Statements. There is the Open Government with Mikhail Abyzov as the Minister in charge. The topic of open data is promoted actively but in rather a heavy-handed way: they prefer to discuss pure technical aspects of open data publication, not FOI fundamental principles. However, having given up the OGP entrance, our country has lost a possibility to take part in a most interesting international competition, Instead, we exist now within rather strange “sovereign openness”.

There are two more international-level milestones for Russia: first, in the 2012 E-Government Development Index, our country has raised by 32 positions against the previous Index and holds now the 27th position; second, at the G8 summit, President Putin signed the Open Data Charter. We hope the Charter’s guidelines for information massive disclosure by public bodies will be taken into account, especially counting also Russia’s position in the Open Data Census.

And what has happened at the civil level? Public control advocacy has been rather active since February when Alexey Navalny published in his blog materials disclosing foreign realty assets belonging to Vladimir Pekhtin, the State Duma member and head of the parliamentary ethical commission(!). As a result of the “Pekhting”, several high officials have lost much in reputation (and some of them, in position, too) in 2013. Of course not any malicious joy upon “public servants” hurt by Navalny is of real importance. For us, this case shows that active citizens began to realize and to implement anti-corruption potential of open information sources.  Our key hope for 2014 is that public control of governmental activities will become wider, more feasible, and more systematic.

However, it is not always easy to get relevant information from the state. The case of “$ 1 billion for NGOs” is a most remarkable example. On April 5, 2013, President Vladimir Putin said the following in his interview to ARD, a German broadcast company: “There are 654 non-governmental organisations operating in the Russian Federation, which are funded, as it has turned out, from abroad… Over the four months alone that followed the adoption of the law in question, the accounts of these organisations augmented by… How much money do you think they received? You can hardly imagine; I did not know the figure myself: 28.3 billion rubles, which is almost $1 billion. 855 million rubles via diplomatic missions. These organisations are engaged in internal political activity. Should not our society be informed of who gets the money and for what purposes?”

So the society tried to get informed. Requests were submitted to the Ministry of Justice, the federal body in charge of NGO financial accountability. Unfortunately, the Ministry appeared to be unable to help the interested citizens to learn the truth since the data on foreign funding for Russian NGOs, obtained by the Ministry from another federal body, the Federal Service for Financial Monitoring, were classified an information “for administrative use only”. Dmitry Gudkov, the State Duma member, has got a similar response to his parliamentary question lodged to both above-mentioned federal bodies.

In October, the Government of the Russian Federation launched its new official website. It cost the state budget 79 million rubles, and was announced as a most advanced governmental online resource outlining informational openness standards for other government bodies. Well, we immediately monitored the new website for the informational openness and were surprised to find that a vast volume of information present at the previous website vanished from its new version. We are sure that the Government has fixed this sad failure up to now.

When summarizing our results a year ago, we were quite optimistic since the most bright prospects for Russia within international movement for governmental transparency and accountability were outlined at the large international conference Open State Governance in Moscow (December 2012). However, in 2013, we seem not to have got any “cherry pie”. But we are far from drooping: our work is continuing, informational online openness we have been monitoring for years now growth gradually, and more seldom now we are to explain to officials that publication of full and actual information on their activities is an imperative and not anyone’s fancy.

Sooner or later, let it be so.

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