Hungarian transparency under threat
Last week Hungarian President János Áder sent back a controversial draft law to Parliament. The amendment to the Freedom of Information law would have restricted access to public information. If passed, it would be much harder for Hungarians to understand government actions and hold public officials to account.
The amendment was introduced by MPs of ruling political party Fidesz and pushed through the parliament in less than 48 hours. It will now undergo further consideration in the Parliament.
In early May the proposed amendment caused Transparency International Hungary and several other civil society organisations to quit an anti-corruption group they had formed with the government. Still, even though Áder did not sign the draft, Hungary is dangerously close to creating a new secrecy law.
- Miklós Ligeti, Legal Director TI Hungary
Vetoing the law was the minimum Áder could do, says Transparency International Hungary. Had he been brave enough he would have asked for a ruling from the Constitutional Court, who would have had many grounds to find the amending law unconstitutional. The changes proposed would severely obstruct access to information of public interest, with vague and obscure terms opening the door to arbitrary and restrictive interpretations.
Law would limit freedom of information
The amendment is designed to restrict the amount of data citizens can access. It does so by saying only state bodies are allowed to collect enough data to carry out large audits. It closes the door for extended and real access to, and the processing of, large amounts of government data by individuals and non-governmental groups like civil society organisations or the media.
Since the amendment uses general terms, authorities can freely interpret it, giving them a lot of leeway to reject requests for the disclosure of information as “abusive” or “excessive” requests.
Variety of accessible information is reduced
The amendment also limits the scope of Hungary’s current Freedom of Information law. If the changes go through, it will no longer be the umbrella for a range of different laws, with different codes and regulations on data and information.
As a result, an appeal using the law of freedom information as the means for an information request may no longer be enough if a Hungarian wants to obtain information on everything from court cases, to decisions of public bodies, or personal information about public officials. The variety of accessible information is widely curtailed.
Even worse, while the Freedom of Information law makes it possible to dispute a refused request for public information, it is far from clear what one can do if a request for information outside this law is denied again.
These limitations boil down to the slow suffocation of access to information in Hungary. When access to information is lacking, it makes it easier for officials to get away with corrupt acts and hide the truth. The limitations proposed by the Hungarian government directly endanger the possibility to audit, review and therefore control public offices as designated under the law.
Cigarette controversy provoke amendment
In addition, the amendment applies to both future and ongoing cases. That means the Hungarian government can also intervene in information requests that are already in process. It is no surprise, therefore, that the Hungarian Parliament decided on constituting the draft law after civil society groups had asked the government to publish bids in a tender for tobacco retail licenses.
In Hungary the government maintains a monopoly on the retail of tobacco and can therefore grant concessions to run tobacco shops. The criteria for judging the bids are kept secret as well as the names of applicants and the names of those who evaluate the bids.
Critics say the secrecy over the tobacco retail makes it possible for the government led by Fidesz to favour people willing to help the party maintain its position at next years’ parliamentary elections.
Where to go now
Tobacco retail licenses aside, the impact of the amendment is much wider, covering all public bodies, and threatens transparency across the government.
In the case of the access to information, other European countries do better than Hungary when it comes to having an independent oversight body as well as providing full publication of income and asset disclosures.
Hungary used to have an independent Freedom of Information Ombudsman. But the prime-minister replaced him by the president of the Hungarian Data Protection and Freedom of Information Authority. In name this protector of the Hungarian Freedom of Information is still independent. But unlike his predecessor he is an authority and therefore part of the executive. This was questioned by the European Commission which then litigated Hungary before the Luxembourg Court (for breach of EU law).
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- Adopt a proactive disclosure approach, making information ‘public by default’ in an easily accessible and understandable electronic format.
- Information should be free of charge or with reasonable fees.
- Stipulate clear and reasonable time limits for how long public bodies can review appeals against refusals for access to information.