21.05.2000 | Roman Romanov, Sebastopol

I have the right to know


One of the problems inherited by Ukraine after the disintegration of the USSR is state structures closed for public scrutiny and general inaccessibility of official information. The international agreements, which were signed by Ukraine, shall be printed and distributed in Ukraine. Nonetheless, many such texts are unknown to Ukrainian citizens, because they are unavailable. The law on information obliges state organs to give information about their activities, but actually it can be obtained rather infrequently. For instance, I many times turned to the Sebastopol directorate of the Ministry of Interior, sending requests about the number of militiamen sacked during the year for corruption, about the number of applying firearms and special devices, and the consequences of such applications. I never got an answer.

The timely information about a technogenic catastrophe, elemental calamity and other emergencies may save lives of many people. On the contrary, the concealment of such information results in the growth of victims. We have come across with the bitter experience of this kind in Chernobyl.

The process of the approval of resolutions by the top state officials is absolutely unknown to a man in the street. Only in February 1999 the President of Ukraine issued ten edicts classified as ‘not for print’. This means that citizens of Ukraine may know only the numbers of these edicts: 204/99, 183/99, 184/99, 185/99, 166/99, 167/99, 168/99, 169/99, 170/99, 131/99. What is hidden behind these figures, what has the President decided on our behalf and behind our backs is unknown, as well as the reason for so active issuing unprintable edicts.

Instead of answering the requests and rendering information about their activities, as it is stipulated by the Ukrainian laws ‘On information’ and ‘On complaints of citizens’, the state organs chose another way — they created special departments (press-centres, information cervices, PR departments), which provide only such information, which is worth rendering according in the opinion of the corresponding chiefs. These scraps of information are intended as an advertisement of the activities of the state organs, but they do not enable tax payers to learn what is done by the authorities for the tax payers’ money.

Such actions of the authorities cause estrangement between power bodies and citizens, which is a typical feature of an undemocratic society. That is why many countries (now their number is 20) adopt special laws about the access to information. Next autumn the draft of the law ‘On the access to information’ will be considered by the state Duma of Russia. This draft was adopted in the first reading and later essentially amended and detailed by the authors: Aleksey Simonov, the president of the foundation of protecting glasnost, Viktor Monakhov, a member of the chamber in charge of information conflicts at the President’s administration, Iosif Dzialoshinski, the president of the human rights protection organization ‘Commission on free access to information’, and Yuri Nesterov, a deputy of the Duma.

This amended draft stipulates that the right for requesting information belongs not only to citizens of Russia, but to foreigners as well. The state bodies are obliged to answer a written request within a month.

Another feature of this draft is that nobody has the right to restrict the access to information about laws and other legal acts which are permitted for publication, as well as about emergencies, the size of the gold reserve and hard currency reserve of the country, about privileges, indemnities, health of the top officials, about facts of abusing human rights and freedoms, etc.

The draft lists the punishments for the violation of the right of access to information. These punishments contain criminal, administrative and civil punishments. By the way, the Penal Code of Russia contains the responsibility ‘for the refusal in rendering information to a citizen’ (Article 40).

Thus, it is quite possible that the list of the countries, where the laws guarantee the access to information, which includes Austria, Australia, Belgium, Canada, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, the USA, etc., will be enriched by Russia in the near future. And what about our legislators?

PL commentary.
In our opinion the inadequate situation with the access to information in Ukraine is not due to the lack of laws. If one examines attentively the Ukrainian law ‘On information’, he will see that the law permits the access to the official information. The trouble is that this law (with many others, including the Constitution) is steadily violated by the President and by the executive power. The obstacles on the way of obtaining information, which R.Romanov justly describes, has the form of a vertical of press services from that in the President’s administration down to press-services of Ministries, agencies and so on. This construction measures out tiny doses of information. This is the invention of the Ukrainian bureaucracy, which reduced to zero the law ‘On information’, thus violating the Constitution, according to which the restriction of the access to information may be introduced by law only. This situation will be intact until the Ukrainian society bears it, and no new laws will help. To change this situation, in our opinion, is possible only through the analysis of sublegal acts, issued by various agencies. The results of such analysis must be made public, and their anti-Constitutional character must be proved in court.

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