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U.K.: Freedom Of Information Act Holds Promise For Postcommunist Democracies

Great Britain has a new law, the Freedom of Information Act, which guarantees every citizen the right to see all information about them that affects their daily lives and which is held by public bodies. These include government departments, as well as tens of thousands of public organizations, such as schools, hospitals, and the police. They are all now required to respond to inquiries within 20 working days. There are, however, 25 exemptions, such as national-security matters and criminal investigations. Some 50 countries already have similar laws, yet many are of a very limited nature, so experts say the new law should serve Britons well. Could a law like this benefit the new postcommunist democracies, too?

London, 14 January 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Some 100,000 public bodies in Britain are now obliged by the new Freedom of Information Act to release most information requested by ordinary citizens.

For example, citizens can ask to see files that pertain to them that may be stored in government archives, or obtain documents about plans by their local hospital to cut the number of doctors.

Wyn Grant is a specialist in British and European politics at the University of Warwick in Coventry.

"I think, broadly speaking -- and given there is a commissioner who's overseeing the act -- this is a well-thought-out act, and an act that was very necessary and will open up the political process much more. And there is still some protection for documents that relate to issues of national security and so on, which it wouldn't be a good idea to have out in the public domain," Grant says.
"My idea is that every decision which has a direct bearing on people's lives should be made public, [except] the instructions concerning national security."

Such exemptions include legal and criminal matters, and parliamentary information that could inhibit debate. Also exempted are government policy formulation documents and ministerial communications.

Grant notes that the new law has already helped the media to reveal some information in government archives.

"First of all, it's involved the release of archives, which normally we would not have seen until 30 years was up, relating for example to issues like the safety of nuclear power stations, which would have otherwise been kept under lock and key. We've seen documents related to policy towards the [Irish Republican Army] in Ireland -- the hunger strikes, for example, and the fact that the government was planning for those well in advance. So I think a lot more information is now coming out into the public domain which would not have been there before," Grant says.

Grant says he is aware that the media and various advocacy groups are likely to take the most frequent advantage of the new act. But he says this will not diminish its importance to ordinary citizens.

"Decisions taken in the National Health Service or in schools -- why a particular person is accepted for one school and not another -- are vitally important to ordinary people," he says.

Experts in Central Europe who know Britain well express some reservations about the new law.

Pavel Bratinka is a former Czech government minister for special services.

"My idea is that every decision which has a direct bearing on people's lives should be made public, [except] the instructions concerning national security. But I wonder whether some sweeping law, which would make it obligatory for any official to publish whatever papers he ever produced, would be beneficial. On the contrary, I believe it would be extremely detrimental to the quality of British government and even the public political life," Bratinka says.

Bratinka says the British government could become obsessed about releasing or archiving confidential information, and thus become less effective.

Grant of Warwick University agrees that the new law could result in the British government becoming more secretive.

"I think they will become more cautious -- about e-mails, for example, which already leaked out in a number of recent public inquiries. And I think, some quite sensitive communications will now take place by telephone or in face-to-face conversations, and no written record will be kept of these meetings," Grant says.

Grant adds that not everyone is happy about the impact of the new law on the efficiency of institutions, either.

"Some people are concerned about the burden that it will place on their organizations -- that they will have to spend a lot of time searching out files and finding information to respond to requests under this act. And that's been a concern obviously for the civil service, but also for organizations like universities -- particularly given that you have to respond in 20 days," Grant says.

Britain is an old democracy, but would such a law make a positive difference in the fledgling democracies of Central and Eastern Europe? Experts seem to be of two minds.

A similar law has been in force, for example, in the Czech Republic since 1999, but its enforcement has proven difficult.

Jaroslav Veis is the spokesman for the deputy speaker of the Czech Senate, Petr Pithart.

"Formally, it exists. Of course, practically, it's not so easy to put it in action. Still, quite a lot of institutions are trying to hide this kind of information. Everything that's not classified is free, and there should be a possibility for the citizens to have a chance to see everything," Veis says.

Pavel Bratinka regrets that the law he helped to introduce has not changed the secretive behavior of Czech state institutions.

"If it ought to make public all the decisions which had an impact on people, then it would be great. Because here one could not even find out how much had the local council spent on some building, or what's the price of all those various 'related' agreements," Bratinka says.

Grant believes a law like the new British act could prove useful to speed up democratization in these transition nations.

"I think it would be of use, particularly if you think of the context of recent events in Ukraine and the fact that the new government is in Ukraine. Perhaps, this is something they ought to consider. Whether it's something that the government in Russia will be willing to consider is another question, I think. But certainly for Ukraine this might be quite interesting," Grant says.

The Czech Republic's Veis says many of his fellow citizens "still find it difficult to shed the apathy about public affairs instilled by the former communist regime." He says he hopes the new British law will provoke a debate in his country and in the whole region.