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Journalists Asking for Urgent Examination in Second Reading of Amendments to the Law on Access to Information

07 October 2016
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Journalists, especially investigative journalists, need a law on access to information adapted to current needs, and the amendments adopted in the first reading need to be as soon as possible subjected to voting in the second reading – this was the message that journalist Anastasia Nani, moderator of the public debates organized by the Independent Journalism Center (IJC), addressed to participants. Attendees – media experts, journalists, MPs and lawyers – supported the message. Representatives of the Government, the institution that sent to the Parliament several amendments to this draft law, did not respond to the invitation.

According to Gheorghe Mocanu, one of the MPs who registered the legislative initiative in the Parliament, after adoption of amendments in the first reading, it is necessary to prepare for the second reading. Thus, the document needs to be adapted by taking into consideration all the amendments proposed. “The most debates in the Parliament related to the terms of provision of information, with the argument being that information can’t be provided on time if a request is registered on Thursday evening, for example, given that Saturday and Sunday are non-working days. Now we must work in the commission in order to prepare the document properly. Today’s discussion will help us have more arguments when we present it to the Parliament,” Gheorghe Mocanu said.

The Government presented a set of amendments referring to information provision terms, the procedure for registration and record-keeping of requests for information, the penalties stipulated for failure to comply with information provision terms, etc. “According to procedure, we can take the Government’s amendments into consideration and we can choose not to,” added Mocanu, MP.

Lilian Carp, member of the parliamentary commission for mass media, said there is also the problem that in the majority of cases public institutions have no internal circulation of documents in electronic form, and if they do, it is not properly used. “The solution in this case is that every institution be obliged to transfer its documents into electronic form in a certain period of time. Unfortunately, our civil servants follow a single law, the one on petitioning, under which the term for provision of information is 30 days. Civil servants are not instructed in this sense,” he said.

Referring to the penalties applied, lawyer Vitalie Zama said: “Unfortunately, things don’t get to penalties. Many journalists don’t go further: they don’t write complaints, don’t appeal to the police, so that civil servants get penalized if they violate the law on access to information. Thus, alhough such legal provisions exist, there are few of those who actually apply them.”

The journalists present at the event underlined the need of obtaining information as soon as possible, because both they and media consumers want to be informed as quickly as possible. “First, the possibility to provide information orally is totally ignored. We, journalists, sometimes request simple information, which should just be posted on the institution’s website. But it is not there. The second problem is that payment is required – we pay public institutions thousands of lei… Even more important is that the fee was doubled in December. Sometimes, in order to find the beneficiary of a company, for example, you need dozens of data,” said Alina Radu, director of Ziarul de Garda publication.

Journalist Dumitru Lazur mentioned that according to his experience, 50% of institutions anyway provide the requested information in maximum 10 working days, so there is no problem in reducing terms: “In most cases, journalists face two problems. One is the civil servants’ practice of responding on the last day. The second is that no institution has an employee whose duty is providing information.”

Other participants also agreed that if in European countries they manage responding to a request for information in 5, or maximum 10, days, it should be possible in our country, too. “I welcome the idea of reducing terms. Whether it is 3 working or calendar days, they should be reduced. To be honest, when journalists request information, they know what they’re asking for. They happen to know even the exact name of the document. What they rather need is confirmation of what they know,” lawyer Eugeniu Rabca concluded.

In this context, media expert Ion Bunduchi said that “if you can’t meet the 3-day deadline, the law stipulates how to give a motivated refusal, or rather how to postpone provision of information. You can say you can’t make it in time because you have a lot of information that needs time to be processed. Some information can be presented even the next day. Why can they do it in other countries?”

It should be reminded that the Parliament adopted in the first reading draft law no. 47 on amending and supplementing the Law on Access to Information on July 28, 2016. The draft law had been developed by the IJC experts and registered as a legislative initiative by a group of unaffiliated MPs – Vladimir Hotineanu, Mihaela Spatari, Aliona Gota, Stefan Creanga, Ion Balan and Gheorghe Mocanu.

The draft law proposes optimizing the registration of requests for information into a special register of record-keeping and control. Currently, such requests are registered together with petitions. The draft law also provides for reducing the term for provision of official information by public authorities – from “not later than 15 working days from the date of registration of request” (under the current legislation) to maximum 10 calendar days. Finally, the authors of the draft law believe harsher penalties are needed for failure to comply with the law, pleading for amendments to Article 71 of the Contraventions Code.
This public debate has been possible due to the generous help of the American people through the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). The opinions here belong to authors and might not reflect the position of the USAID or the U.S. Government.