Freedom of Information to become a lot less free in Hungary

June 29, 2015

Minister of Justice László Trócsányi

The Justice Ministry submitted a bill on Friday which would have the government charge a fee for Freedom of Information (FOI) requests and extend the legally required response period from 15 to 30 days.

The ministry, led by Minister of Justice László Trócsányi, had the legislative proposal quietly uploaded to the Hungarian parliament’s website Friday. If adopted by parliament, the law would severely weaken Hungary’s already shaky information request system. The bill contains provisions that would allow state organs to charge those requesting information in order to complete the information request, as well as doubling the deadline for response.

Freedom of Information requests have proven an important legal means for compelling the government and state-owned companies not known for transparency to disclose information and release documents.

Hungarian blog Kettős Mérce (Double Standard) is highly critical of the government’s reasoning regarding the proposal.

Kettős Mérce blogger András Jámbor writes: “The [government’s] train of thought in support of charging for the service of completing [Freedom of Information] requests is laughable because contracts and data must be made public anyway. This is what otherwise guarantees that citizens can trust that the state is not just stealing all the taxpayers’ money. This is what transparency is all about. However, the government wants the opposite, it does not want to provide this guarantee. We continue to see more and more cases in which they are stealing our money and giving it to their friends.’

The government’s obligation to fulfill its responsibilities by responding to Freedom of Information requests is perhaps the most effective control Hungarian citizens have at their disposal to monitor the government’s action.

Numerous scandals, financial improprieties, wasteful government spending and even the government’s funding of NGOs in other countries have been exposed through the FOI process, albeit sometimes requiring lawsuits to obtain more information.

Miklós Ligeti, Legal Director for Transparency International Hungary, tells Budapest Beacon that the proposed law “empowers state organs and state-owned enterprises to arbitrarily demand that citizens who request information in the public interest pay for the expenses associated with managing and processing the data they are requesting”.

“Neither the proposed law or any other regulation sets barriers or limitations to any such demands.”

Ligeti says another danger is that state organs will be able to lawfully oblige the refund of their expenses if the law passes, expenses that are arbitrarily defined.

“The proposed law says that such payments shall be made in proportion to the workload that results from servicing the public information requests. Some government agencies and state-owned enterprises pay outstanding salaries to their employees,” Ligeti says.

Thus, the proposed law would make it legal for the government to come up with fees based on something as ludicrous as the salary of a manager who spends time servicing a data request.

“There is a definite possibility that the state will demand incommensurate amounts of money from citizens to service these information requests….Making the payment of large sums of money a prerequisite for servicing public interest information requests undoubtedly creates administrative obstacles for citizens trying to access public data,” he says.

Ligeti says that, aside from Transparency International, other anti-corruption NGOs and watchdog groups will most certainly challenge the proposed law that is expected to be voted on when parliament returns from summer recess in the autumn.