Budapest, 08 May 2013 - Changes to Hungary’s freedom of information laws adopted last week discredit all previous government promises to stop corruption, Hungarian NGOs said today.
Transparency International Hungary, public spending watchdog K-Monitor, the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union and investigative reporting website atlatszo.hu today said they would quit the anti-corruption working group coordinated by the Ministry of Justice in protest the new limits on transparency.
On 30 of April 2013, a special sitting of the Hungarian Parliament adopted an amendment limiting the scope of Hungary’s Freedom of Information Act. Extraordinarily, the amendment was passed within less than 48 hours of being proposed by MPs. It will be published in a couple of days and will enter into force on the day following the day of its publication.
“This amendment is the first step down a slippery slope, at the bottom of which is full state control of public information. It heralds a dark age for democratic governance in Hungary. The law will now allow government officials to get away with bias in their actions and could see corruption go unseen and unpunished in future,” said Miklós Ligeti, Legal Director at Transparency International Hungary.
The amendment introduces major limits to citizens’ right to access public information by saying only state bodies may hold enough data to carry out large audits.
It also obliges citizens to justify a legitimate interest of requests for information on, for example, court cases, decisions of public bodies, or personal information of public officials which until now was in the public domain.
The fact that what constitutes a “large audit” or “legitimate interest” is not defined by the amendment gives massive leeway to public bodies to reject requests to disclose information as “abusive”.
This runs counter to the principle that every citizen has the right to be informed about the spending of public money, a pivotal value in any democracy the amendment voted on in the Parliament calls into question, said Transparency International Hungary, K-Monitor watchdog for public funds, Hungarian Civil Liberties Union and atlatszo.hu investigative portal. Passing an amendment reshaping the sphere of freedom of information in only two days is also unacceptable, they said.
Notably, the amendment was proposed as civil society groups pressed for access to the bids in a tender for tobacco retail licenses, which reportedly went to government party loyalists. This law will allow public decision makers to reject such requests.
Under the new, government-friendly understanding of freedom of information, government offices, municipalities and other users of public money would be able to keep the way they allocate public funds secret. In future, it could also exclude key aspects of public life from transparency rules, such as asset declarations or conflict of interest issues of public officials.
This law contradicts the fundamental ethical norms in a democracy and places measures endeavored by the government as included in its anti-graft action plan into doubt, the four NGOs warned, explaining they are withdrawing from the government’s anti-corruption working group because, although they are still devoted to make Hungary a better society free of corruption, they will not lend their reputation to the legal chicanery of the Hungarian government in the anti-corruption arena.
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