The Hungarian parliament has voted yes to plans to allow the government and other public authorities to charge a fee for the “human labour costs” of freedom of information (FOI) requests this week, as well as granting sweeping new powers to withhold information. It just needs the signature of President Janos Ader before it becomes law.
The bill, submitted by Minister of Justice László Trócsányi, was published on the government website just days before the vote, on 3 July, precluding any meaningful debate about the proposal. It is widely believed that through this initiative, governing party Fidesz is trying to put a lid on a number of scandals involving wasteful government spending, uncovered through FOI requests.
According to Transparency International, the bill “appears to be a misguided response by the Hungarian government to civil society’s earlier successful use of freedom of information tools to publicly expose government malpractice and questionable public spending”.
One provision of the bill allows public bodies to refuse to make certain data public for 10 years if deemed to have been used in decision-making processes, according to Index award-winning Hungarian investigative news platform Atlatszo.hu. As virtually any piece of information can be used to build public policies upon, this gives the government a powerful argument not to answer FOI requests.
The bill also allows government actors to charge fees for fulfilling FOI request. Until now, government actors could ask for the copying expenses of documents. From now on, they can ask the person filing the request to cover the “human labor costs” of the inquiry.
It is not yet clear how much members of the public will have to pay. “There will be a separate government decree in the future regarding the costs that can be charged for a FOI request,” Tibor Sepsi, a lawyer working for Atlatszo.hu, says.
Because the public has no means to verify whether these costs are well-grounded, and at some government agencies the salaries are known to be very high, the government might be in a discretionary position to ask prohibitive costs for answering the FOI requests, critics of the amendment say.
“The FOI requests usually ask for data that are already available somewhere in electronic format, therefore no government body can say that fulfilling a request involves gathering information,” says Tamás Bodoky, the editor-in-chief of Atlatszo.hu.
“It is unacceptable to plead for extraordinary workload and expenses when much of the requests refer to things that should be published in accordance with transparent pocket rules. This information should be readily available in the settlement of accounts and reports,” he adds.
The work of investigative journalists and watchdog NGOs is further complicated through another provision, regarding copyright. In some cases, the government will be able to refer to copyright issues and only give limited access to certain documents, without making them publicly available.
While the bill will make life harder for those making FOI requests, Sepsi also points out that the situation is not as bad as it may initially seem: “The government will have half a dozen of new ways to reject vexatious FOI requests, but on the implementation level, ordinary courts, the constitutional court or the Hungarian National Authority for Data Protection and Freedom of Information Authority will have the power to keep things under reasonable control.”
Nevertheless, Hungarian and international NGOs working for the transparency of public spending and government decisions are protesting against the bill. An open letter, signed by the groups Atlatszo.hu, K-Monitor, Energiaklub Szakpolitikai Intézet and Transparency International Magyarország Alapítvány has been sent to the Minister of Justice Trócsányi, to the Hungarian National Authority for Data Protection and Freedom of Information Authority, as well as the MPs whose votes decided the fate of the proposal.
“We believe the government would do the right thing if – instead of rolling back on transparency – it would increase the so-called proactive disclosure, meaning that it would publish the information regarding its functioning in electronic format, without a request. We can provide international examples where this can be achieved simply, without extraordinary costs. This would increase not only the transparency of public spending, but the number of FOI requests would also decrease significantly,” the letter argues.
After the vote, a group of 50 opposition MPs pledged to ask the constitutional court to review the text.
Mapping Media Freedom