The Hungarian government has been dissatisfied with the current provisions of the Freedom of Information Act. Already in 2013 the government tried to limit ordinary citizens’ access to public information, but that attempt failed since it was obviously unconstitutional. Now, two years later, the Ministry of Justice has come up with a new scheme.
Up until now, a person requesting data of public interest had to pay only photocopying fees. In practice, that meant that a few days after the request was submitted the appropriate government office informed the applicant of the approximate copying charge and asked whether he was still interested in pursuing the matter. But now, if parliament passes a series of amendments Justice Minister László Trócsányi submitted, the interested citizen will have to pay the complete cost of the release of the documents. What is included in the “complete cost” is not spelled out. Certainly not merely copying costs. As 444.hu semi-jokingly said: “Who knows? It might also include the price of electricity.” Moreover, there is no provision to tell the information seeker ahead of time about the possible cost. It may happen that the bill is millions of forints, which NGOs or investigative journalists are not prepared to pay. This amendment itself might be unconstitutional, since the constitution states that “assurance of freedom of information is the duty of all government organs.”
But that’s not all. Another amendment distinguishes between ordinary government documents and copyrighted documents. The latter cannot be copied and given out to seekers of information; they can only be shown to the interested person. On the surface, this practice seems defensible–until we take a look at a specific case. I’m thinking of the billions the government spent on studies prepared by the associates of the pro-government think tank Századvég. Initially the prime minister’s office that ordered the studies refused to release them, appealing to copyright laws. The newspaperman pursued the case, went to court, and won. If the amendment is passed, the government will put a stop to this practice.
The amendment would also modify laws governing data that are still being considered by the government in such a way that any data that might be the basis for future decisions couldn’t be released. For all intents and purposes, all data would be under government protection.
In addition, there is a fudge-factor sentence that allows the government to prevent the public from accessing material that it doesn’t want to be revealed. “If so much extra work is required of the employees that they are prevented from taking care of their major duties, the request might not be fulfilled completely.”
For some reason the government wants these amendments to become law as soon as possible. Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjén, who originally asked László Kövér to make sure that parliament would be prepared to vote on the amendments in October, wrote a new letter in which he asked for immediate discussion of Trócsányi’s proposals. Naturally, Kövér readily agreed. Parliament will most likely vote on the amendments on Monday.
Being able to ask the government how it spends taxpayer money is an important instrument of democracy. For example, people have the right to know how much the government spends on anti-refugee billboards or how much János Lázár’s trips abroad cost. Given the Fidesz government’s track record, it’s no wonder that Viktor Orbán, his oligarchs, and corrupt government officials are greatly bothered by the uncomfortable questions posed by NGOs or investigative journalists. HVG‘s take on the issue is that the Trócsányi amendments serve to cover up widespread fraud and corruption.
Four anti-corruption organizations–Transparency International Magyarország, K-Monitor, Átlátszó.hu, and Energiaklub–are trying to stop the proposed changes in the law. They jointly wrote to László Trócsányi, to the Authority of National Data Protection and Freedom of Information, and to members of parliament to protest the move. Attila Péterfalvi, president of the Authority of National Data Protection, originally found nothing wrong with the proposed amendments, claiming that eventually the practice of obtaining data would be satisfactorily solved. A few days later, however, he changed his mind and released a statement in which he emphasized that “acquiring data of public interest is a constitutional right, the great achievement of the regime change, the guarantee of democratic rule of law, and the control of public spending.” It is hard to know at the moment what Péterfalvi’s next move will be.
Transparency International released a statement in which they called the law vague and one that severely restricts access to information. They also pointed out that the newly amended law will “create a serious risk that corruption by public officials will go unchecked.” Transparency International believes that government offices cannot charge more than a nominal fee when people would like to find out how their taxes are being spent. Anna Koch, director of Europe and Central Asia at Transparency International, fears that “the government is quickly pushing Hungary toward full state control of public information.” The vote will be tomorrow, and I have no doubt that it will pass.