Hungary OKs Amendments Criticized as Regressive

9 July 2015

The Hungarian Parliament on July 6 approved legislation to raise the cost of making freedom of information requests and make it harder to access information, reported the non-governmental organization Index on Censorship, The Budapest Beacon and K-Monitor (in Hungarian).

The bill, submitted by Minister of Justice László Trócsányi July 3, was moved through with fast-track procedures, and is expected to be signed soon by President Janos Ader. (See previous FreedomInfo.org report.)

The development is one of many recent actions that led groups in Hungary to officially complain to the Open Government Partnership that the government is acting inconsistently with the OGP principles that it subscribed to when becoming a member.

The bill also would allow the government to charge for the cover the “human labor costs” of for fulfilling a FOI request, not just the copying expenses of documents. Future regulations would spell out the fees.

Another provision would permit public bodies to refuse to disclose data for 10 years if it was used in the decision-making processes, according to a post (in Hungarian) on the Hungarian investigative news platform Atlatszo.hu.

“It is widely believed that through this initiative, governing party Fidesz is trying to put a lid on a number of scandals involving wasteful government spending, uncovered through FOI requests,” commented Index on Censorship.

Criticisms Issued

In advance of the vote, strong criticisms emerged against Hungary’s plans to amend its access to public information law.

Hungary OKs FOI Amendments Criticized as Regressiv, the Representative on Freedom of the Media for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, urged their rejection, saying, “I call on the Parliament not to adopt the proposed amendments and to launch a public discussion with all stakeholders to ensure that the changes will support, and not limit, access to public information.”

Transparency International issued a statement saying the draft law “appears to be a misguided response by the Hungarian government to civil society’s earlier successful use of freedom of information tools to publicly expose government malpractice and questionable public spending.”

“The proposed law creates uncertainty about how much a member of the public would be charged when making a freedom of information request, leaving open the possibility that filing the request would be very expensive,” according to TI. “It follows a 2013 amendment that gave officials excessive scope to reject requests for public information.”

“You cannot charge more than a nominal fee to people who want to find out how their taxes are being spent. This law opens the door to massive costs related to public information requests and is nothing less than an unfair tax on transparency,” said Anne Koch, Director of Europe and Central Asia at Transparency International.

“Setting new barriers to accessing public data restricts the degree to which this fundamental right can be enjoyed, and therefore would also be in a serious conflict with Article 2 of the Treaty on the European Union,” according to Miklós Ligeti, Legal Director for Transparency International.

OGP Review Sought

Representatives of the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, Transparency International Hungary and K-Monitor want the Open Government Partnership Steering Committee to investigate whether Hungary, an OGP member, is violating an OGP policy designed to protect civic activism. The issue is addressed in a Sunlight Foundation blog post. The letter to the OGP under the OGP “response policy” cites many restrictions on civil society operations. The request will be reviewed by the OGP and likely assigned for investigation. The policy can lead to a member country being declared “inactive.”

In it’s only previous action under the response policy, an OGP committee  agreed with complaints from civil society organizations (CSOs) that the Azerbaijan government is restricting CSOs and acting in ways inconsistent with OGP principles. (See previous FreedomInfo.org report.)

 

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