Since 22 December 2004, the day when Rodoljub Sabic was elected Commissioner for Information of Public Importance, the citizens of Serbia have had an address they can turn to they are not satisfied with the reply of a government institution or if the administration remains silent and does not provide requested information within the time limit set by the law. Mr. Sabic spoke for Danas about his experiences with government institutions, problems, citizens' complaints, silence of administration&- What are your experiences with provision of information by government institutions, that is, what do citizens and journalist most often complain about?
- The last three years have been marked by a constant increase of the number of requests for access to information from citizens submitted to all levels of public administration. It is also typical that, although requests for information have concerned virtually all walks of life, focus has undoubtedly been on issues in connection with the disposal of public money and other public resources - public procurements, privatizations, concessions, budget expenditures etc. And, of course, the largest number of complaints submitted to the Commissioner for Information is about these things. In my opinion, this is a sign that the citizens have recognized the potential of the freedom of information in the fight against sluggishness, prodigality, abuse and corruption.
- What are the most frequent problems and which institutions most often refuse to cooperate or do not reply to questions?
- There are problems at all levels, from primary schools and local communities, through local self-government and public enterprises to central government bodies. Of almost 4,000 complaints submitted to the Commissioner for Information, more than 90 percent were submitted because of so-called silence of administration, i.e. because requests were ignored, which is a really unbelievable percentage and is indicative of an utterly unfair treatment given to the rights of the public enshrined in the law. A government body can decide to deny requested information under the conditions set by law, but in no case can it ignore a request. What is particularly absurd is the fact that most of them, at least 65 percent, give information which they previously denied right after the first intervention of the Commissioner, even without the formal order. Other bodies do so after the Commissioner's order. A small number, several percent, do not give information even after that. The problem is not large in terms of numbers, but it is a major matter of principle, particularly when it comes to public authorities, which should have special responsibility in exercising the principle of legality. This is why I recently named some of them publicly, for example the Ministry of Infrastructure, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Agency for Privatization, but there are more of them on this list.
I believe that one of the priority tasks of the new Government will have to be to introduce more stringent responsibility in connection with this, and, of course, to finally activate a mechanism for enforcing the Commissioner's decisions.
- How can institutions be made to open for provision of information of public importance?
- It is a complex task which can only be achieved gradually; it will take time, but it must be constantly worked on. One of the most important things is education of people in government bodies. This task cannot be expected to be handled by the Commissioner and the civil sector alone, it must be handled by the public administration system. Education should provide unconditional understanding and acceptance of at least three things.
The first thing is that in a democratic society it is quite normal for the government to be accountable to the public. This it is not something that depends on somebody's good will, but the duty set by the Constitution and law of Serbia.
Secondly, this is not only the duty for the people in government bodies, but also a chance, an opportunity for affirmation of their results. A good worker with good results has nothing to hide from the public, on the contrary.
The third thing is that freedom of access to information does not imply only the duty of the Government to give information when citizens or media request it. The Government should provide to the public objective, documented information to the maximum possible extent, even when no one specifically requests it. In the age we live in, an excellent way to provide this information to the public is by publishing it on the Internet. Unfortunately, I think there is little reason to be satisfied here. Much more should and could have been done, but we will talk about this on some other occasion.
- Which answers and excuses do institutions use when they do not want to give information?
- Information is most often denied by silence, ignoring of a request. When public authorities do not remain silent, various explanations are purported, some of them even (tragi)comical.
Still, in most cases this is done by invoking confidentiality - official, state or commercial secrets. And we are, unfortunately, maybe the last country in Europe which does not have a modern law on confidential data classification, and information is marked as confidential by obsolete arbitrary criteria from the old times, from the regulations passed in Milosevic's time, or even in Tito's time. This is why it is no accident that secrets often conceal not only information which by no means deserves this status, but also information withheld on the basis of absolutely illegitimate interests.
- How can we make an institution to give requested information, if, for example, BIA refuses to reveal the amount of its director's salary claiming it to be a State secret?
- Easy, but under the condition that there is a will to do that. Decisions of the Commissioner for Information are binding by the Law. A government body which does not act according to them violates the Law on purpose, which is certainly not expected of a government body. Still, the legislators envisaged a solution for this situation as well, stating that in case it is necessary the Serbian Government shall provide implementation of the Commissioner's decision. It is hard to understand why, but the Serbian Government has not performed this duty so far. Why it has not done so is a question which should be addressed to persons who constituted the Government. In any case, it is high time it started doing it. As the highest executive authority, the Government has a special role and responsibility exactly in terms of implementation of laws, this one and any other, of course.Aleksandar Roknic