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Amendments to the Law on Free Access to Information of Public Importance - the new draft endangers the achieved level of citizens’ rights

Specific solutions from the Draft Amendments to the Law on Free Access to Information of Public Importance are unacceptable because they lower the existing citizens’ right to access information, a group of civil society organisations announced.

On the other hand, the draft does not contain solutions to some of the biggest problems in exercising this right, according to the Coalition for Freedom of Access to Information, Coalition for Access to Justice, Coalition for Media Freedom and the National Convention on the European Union.

The Ministry of State Administration and Local Self-Government published the draft on 27 May and opened a public debate that will last until 16 June 2021. The process of amending the law began in 2018. During the first cycle of public consultations, citizens’ associations, the media and the Commissioner agreed that most of the solutions proposed at the time limited the right of citizens to free access to information instead of eliminating problems identified during the decade after the application of the law.

In January 2021, the ministry formed a new Working Group in a non-transparent manner without involving the public in this process. Only after the campaign of organisations that were signatories of this announcement was it possible for the civil sector representatives to present their proposals and comments to the Working Group. Unfortunately, most of these proposals did not find their place in the draft submitted for public discussion. The acceptance of the suggestion that all majority state-owned companies remain subject to the law can be pointed out as positive.

We especially emphasise that introducing new solutions that reduce the achieved level of the right to access information and its protection would be both wrong and unconstitutional. In particular, the draft proposes more grounds for restricting the right of access to information, for example, prescribing the possibility of denying information to the applicant if this would jeopardise the position on the capital market of capital companies or if it would violate the business interest of legal or natural persons. Of particular concern is the deletion of the authority’s duty to conduct a public interest test before denying information because it is classified information. This opens the door for spreading the existing bad practice of hiding information of public importance under the veil of secrecy from the citizens. The draft also stipulates that political parties and religious communities have no obligation to provide information to citizens, media, or other applicants interested in their work, even when they are primarily financed from public sources and have not provided data on the use of these funds to state organs. The exclusion of the National Bank of Serbia from the Commissioner’s competence further complicates and prolongs the procedure of obtaining information on the work of this institution.

At the same time, the Draft Law does not provide improvements in some areas identified as particularly problematic, including the right to appeal when the Government or some of its services ignore requests for access to information.

Therefore, we invite all organisations, professional associations, activists, media and individuals to participate in the public debate process actively, submit their comments and suggestions, and help us fight to preserve and improve the right to access information of public importance.