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Montenegro: Public debate on access to information law must be delayed

Transparency International fully supports a coalition of civil society organisations and journalists in Montenegro who, yesterday, called on their government to postpone a public debate on proposed amendments to the country’s Free Access to Information law. Meaningful, participatory debate on this crucial legislation is impossible during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

The proposed amendments would remove controls over how the Montenegrin state declares information classified. They would allow information to be classified if its publication would affect the operations of a government agency, potentially including information that exposes corruption within the agency.

Transparency International has previously called for the government of Montenegro to align the proposed amendments with Montenegro’s constitution, international best practice and the conventions to which it is bound, and criticised earlier attempts to push the changes through with only a veneer of public consultation. In the latest developments, the Ministry of Public administration has requested written comments on the amendments by 4 April.

In their statement, the coalition of CSOs and journalists said that there is virtually no public space for the discussion that the law deserves. “It is inappropriate to create [the debate] by force in a climate of collective fear of an impending epidemic,” they said.

Delia Ferreira Rubio, Chair of Transparency International, said: “This is a time for greater transparency, not less. We are seeing political leaders cynically using the coronavirus pandemic as a pretext to reduce oversight, accountability, and citizens’ right to information. In a global crisis, open and transparent government matters more than ever. Any non-emergency legislative measure that require public consultation should be postponed until full, active participation can be guaranteed.”

The joint statement also highlights that parliamentary elections are due to take place in Montenegro in 2020. “The Law on Free Access to Information is a key tool for investigative journalists and NGOs that monitor the work of state bodies,” it reads, adding: “It is precisely the situation with the coronavirus pandemic that shows how important it is for public information to be based on official and verified data, leaving minimal space for fake news and unverified information.”

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