On the occasion of the International Day for Universal Access to Information, our Research Associate Mária Žuffová critically examines access to information policies, as assessed by the Media Pluralism Monitor 2023. She argues that governments must go beyond the status quo to reap the benefits of their own access to information policies.
The importance of access to information for the benefit of our societies has long been recognised as a matter of fact. As Roudakova (2017: 8) argued, “the ability (and the need) to seek truth and justice and to do so publicly is fundamental to the maintenance of most social and political orders”. Without access to information, it would be impossible to raise the alarm with the public when those supposed to represent it go against the public interest or transgress the norms. The 18th-century philosopher Jeremy Bentham recognised that embedding publicity in institutional design helps popular oversight (Bruno, 2017; James et al., 1999; Quinn, 2010; Schofield, 2006).
Two centuries later, most access to information laws were legislated, having government transparency and accountability as their primary goal. Thus, it is no surprise that journalists and civic activists have been perceived as their main beneficiaries.
Access to information laws can also serve many other functions for different groups. While citizens’ regular emails can be left without a response (Vaccari, 2014), information requests must be responded to. Even if public institutions cannot disclose the requested information, they must provide reasons for doing so within the bounds of the access to information laws. As these laws oblige the bureaucracy to reciprocate, and reciprocity increases trust and encourages citizens to re-engage with public institutions (Coleman, 2005; Soo et al., 2020; Tromble, 2018), they can contribute to cultivating relations between institutions and the public. Information requests, thus, can serve many functions, equally beneficial as transparency and accountability. They can facilitate interactions with citizens, assist in clarifying ambiguities, navigate new policies or refute misinformation.
As this year’s Media Pluralism Monitor (MPM) results have again demonstrated, despite the benefits that good implementation and enforcement of access to information laws can bring, many European governments perceive their own access to information policies as a threat and find excuses for how to limit requesters’ rights (Bleyer-Simon et al., 2023).
The MPM evaluates access to information policies (including whistle-blowers’ protection) in EU member states and candidate countries through its Protection of the Right to Information indicator. In 2022, it scored an average risk of 42%. Most assessed countries remained at a reasonably low or medium risk level. Access to information was at a high risk in four countries only – Cyprus, Hungary, Spain, and Turkey), but room for improvement was identified in almost every country.
The MPM continues to show substantial differences among countries in terms of the robustness of legal protection of the right to access information. Some countries, especially new democracies such as Albania, Croatia, Serbia, and Slovenia, have been in the top ten countries of the Global Right to Information Rating, which assesses the quality of access to information legislation worldwide. In the past, as now, these countries set high standards of access to information to meet the EU’s conditions to increase their chances of joining and oblige future governments to retain a certain level of transparency. However, at the same time, the MPM shows that a robust law in place does not necessarily mean it will be adequately implemented and enforced. All mentioned countries experience implementation and enforcement problems, with administrative silence (instances when the public authority does not respond to information requests at all) representing the most common. For instance, in Croatia, administrative silence represented over half of the reported complaints to the Information Commissioner (Bilic & Valecic, 2023). Refusals to disclose the requested information misusing the exemptions listed in the laws is another persisting issue (Milosavljevic & Biljak-Gerjevic, 2023; Žuffová, 2023). Other problems included delays in responding to information requests and time-consuming and ineffective appeal mechanisms, including piled-up complaints with oversight bodies (Spassov et al., 2023).
Vice versa – public authorities do not automatically abuse a weak law as an excuse to obstruct access to public interest information. For instance, there are countries with no constitutional right of access to information or with weak access to information laws, such as Denmark, France, or Luxembourg, but that have reasonably good implementation and enforcement.
As the EU normally sets up the standards for member states and candidate countries, one of the developments in 2022 at the EU level has been particularly concerning – the Judgment of the EU Court of Justice to suspend public access to beneficial ownership registries. This decision, based on registries’ interference with rights to privacy and personal data protection under the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, brought a significant deterioration of the right to information. The courts’ decision clashed with the 5th EU Anti-Money Laundering Directive, which previously required member states to launch beneficial ownership registries and provide open data on beneficial owners to the public. This decision has given member states and candidate countries a signal that the right to information is not on the top agenda despite the fact that it should be.
Access to information laws, together with free and pluralistic media, serve a critical monitorial function and have the potential to address mismanagement and corruption. They can also improve the relation between institutions and the public. While this potential is well recognised de jure, governments must approach their access to information policies as opportunities, not threats, to turn it into actual benefits.
Bilic, P. & Valecic, M. (2023). Monitoring media pluralism in the digital era: application of the Media Pluralism Monitor in the European Union, Albania, Montenegro, the Republic of North Macedonia, Serbia and Turkey in the year 2022. Country report: Croatia. Florence, Italy.
Bruno, J. R. (2017). “Vigilance and Confidence: Jeremy Bentham, Publicity, and the Dialectic of Political Trust and Distrust.” American Political Science Review 111(2): pp. 295–307.
Coleman, S. (2005). “The Lonely Citizen: Indirect Representation in an Age of Networks.” Political Communication 22(2): 197–214.
James, M., Cyprian Blamires, & Catherine Pease-Watkin. (1999). The Collected Works of Jeremy Bentham: Political Tactics. 1st ed. eds. Michael James, Cyprian Blamires, and Catherine Pease-Watkin. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Milosavljevic, M., & Biljak-Gerjevic, R. (2023). Monitoring media pluralism in the digital era: application of the Media Pluralism Monitor in the European Union, Albania, Montenegro, the Republic of North Macedonia, Serbia and Turkey in the year 2022. Country report: Slovenia. Florence, Italy.
Quinn, M. (2010). The Collected Works of Jeremy Bentham: Writings on the Poor Laws. 2nd ed. ed. Michael Quinn. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Roudakova, N. (2017). Losing Pravda Losing Pravda. 1st Edition. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Schofield, P. (2006). “Publicity, Responsibility, and the Architecture of Government.” In Utility and Democracy: The Political Thought of Jeremy Bentham, Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, pp. 250–71.
Soo, N., Weinberg, J. & Dommett, K. (2020). “One Moment, Please: Can the Speed and Quality of Political Contact Affect Democratic Health?” British Journal of Politics and International Relations 22(3): 460–84.
Spassov, O., Ognyanova, N., & Daskalova, N. (2023). Monitoring media pluralism in the digital era: application of the Media Pluralism Monitor in the European Union, Albania, Montenegro, the Republic of North Macedonia, Serbia and Turkey in the year 2022. Country report: Bulgaria. Florence, Italy.
Tromble, R. (2018). “Thanks for (Actually) Responding! How Citizen Demand Shapes Politicians’ Interactive Practices on Twitter.” New Media & Society 20(2): 676–97.
Vaccari, C. (2014). “You’ve Got (No) Mail: How Parties and Candidates Respond to E-Mail Inquiries in Western Democracies.” Journal of Information Technology and Politics 11(2): 245–58.
Žuffová, M. (2023). “Fit for Purpose? Exploring the Role of Freedom of Information Laws and Their Application for Watchdog Journalism.” International Journal of Press/Politics. 28(1): 300–322.