Public Information: Journalists arm themselves with the Law
Three months ago laws supposed to make the authorities more transparent came into force. In spite of bureaucratic difficulties in implementing the legislative norms, journalists do say that information of public significance has become more accessible.
Yehor Sobolyev, the Head of the Svidomo Bureau of Journalist Investigations, says that “the beginning of the Law’s force was better than expected”. He adds that despite the difficulties, since the entry into force of the Law on Access to Public Information and the [amended] Law on Information, more information than previously is forthcoming in response to information requests to institutions and the authorities.
Sobolyev believes that those in power are gradually getting used to the need to share information with the public. “We did not manage to get the results of a safety check into the construction of shopping centres over metro stations and lines at Obolon and the Teatralna Station, however we were sent fairly substantive answers about the checks”.
He compares the Public Information Act to a weapon which now needs to be used by those who want to find out the truth. He sees the current hopeful results as “the beginning of determined efforts over many years that need to be made so that all publicly funded contracts are open, and all questions of public importance receive answers.”
Worse at local level
Unlike Yehor Sobolyev, Kostyantyn Kvurt from the civic organization Internews Ukraine is more restrained in his assessment of achievements. He points out that in three months there have been some positive cases where the authorities have tried to apply the laws and open access to information. However the vast majority of those in power, especially bodies of local self-government, in his view, close prevent public access to information making it “For Official Use only”.
The information in these cases, he says, is often of public importance. The information should be known to the public and used by journalists in their work. This particularly applies to the general plans for city development or the budgets of bodies of power. At the same time the local officials are often not to blame for the situation. They often don’t understand the new law and don’t know how to implement it., and therefore try to prevent access to all information.
Among problems which have already become the trend, Kvurt names delays by the Cabinet of Ministers in drawing up subordinate legislation on implementing the Law, as well as attempts to impede access to information using supposedly legal avenues. “This is what is called payment for services” linked with people’s information requests. There have been several cases when people were asked to pay for photocopying in certain timeframes and in a certain bank. If they didn’t manage to do it, they were asked to submit a new information request.
The more exact the information request, the more specific the answer
Kostyantyn Kvurt advises all civic activists, journalists and other members of the public submitting information requests to the authorities to maintain contact, share positive and negative experience and not lift the pressure on the authorities in order to force them to implement the Law in full.
Yehor Sobolyev stresses the importance of putting information requests together professionally. “The more specific the question, the more substantive the answer”, he explains. He also warns against using the laws on information to block the authorities. He is certain that any official will cooperate better where the information requests are aimed at establishing important facts and meet all the requirements of the law.