CU SENS Media Project
We find that public databases remain paid for journalists, and the authorities are merely mimicking openness to the media. This is unfortunate given that the current leadership of the Public Services Agency (PSA) promised a year ago to offer this service free of charge. The fact that recently, through a government decision, it was decided that, upon request, certain electronic documents will be provided free of charge, is not by far what journalists, especially investigative ones, demanded. But let’s take things one at a time.
What we use public databases for
Journalists, especially investigative journalists, need to access public databases almost daily. We look for data about companies, real estate, public persons or persons of public interest, and we use this information to document and carry out investigations. Currently, databases in Moldova are paid. For example, to get acquainted with the file of a company, you have to pay 226 MDL. Imagine that for a single investigation you need to consult the files of 5-10 companies, which means a budget of 1,130 – 2,260 MDL. Usually, journalists document several topics in parallel, therefore, the budget grows. Sometimes it may happen that, as a result of documentation, the hypothesis of an investigation is not confirmed, so the subject is put on pause, it is not published, although the money for checking information in the databases has been spent. If we are talking about the real estate register (Cadastre), then the minimum monthly subscription, of 200 queries, is 150 MDL.
Given that independent media outlets are in a permanent crisis of financial resources, and the only solution to do our job correctly, honestly and impartially is to resort to the grants offered by international development partners and to the support of our readers/followers, we do not always have budgets for databases. Thus, we often have to give up or postpone work on some topics in order to find money. Some readers are right to reproach us, “Why did it take you so long to publish the subject?” The answer is simple, “Because only now we were able to find the money to check information in public databases.”
Repeated requests for free access to databases
Since journalists do their work in the public interest, in recent years several media outlets have been asking the authorities to give us free access to public databases. The last discussions on this issue took place a year ago, with the change of leadership of the Public Services Agency.
Recently, the Government has adopted a decision stipulating that, starting with August 1, the media has the right to obtain free of charge, in electronic form, information from the databases held by the PSA within five working days. For this, the media outlet must submit an application addressed to the PSA director. Yes, we might look at it as a small victory, but from my own experience I can tell you that, in practical terms, the new legal amendments will not actually help investigative journalists.
I will give you an example so you could see a bit behind the scenes of our work. Suppose a person is appointed to an important position in the state, and journalists want to make a profile of him, inform the public about his wealth and interests. For this, we access the cadastral address where we know or assume that the newly appointed person owns a real estate, and the data obtained may contain valuable information about another real estate. By accessing the address of the second one, you can get new data about other properties and so on, in chain. If we were to make requests to the PSA every five days for all the new data that appeared, the documentation of a journalistic topic would take quite a long time, and the information loses its topicality. Respectively, instead of publishing an article on the topic on the day of the official’s appointment or the next day, perhaps, the investigation will be ready in a few weeks.
In such conditions, it is obvious that media outlets will still choose to pay for subscriptions or PSA services in order to have the necessary information in a click or to be able to study the file of a company from cover to cover.
The fears of the Public Services Agency
In recent years, with the advent of social networks, the credibility of media outlets has suffered. Today, anyone can create a news website with unverified information and claim to be a journalist. Those who polish the image of a party or of some interest groups call themselves journalists, too.
This is one of the main arguments invoked by the PSA when it communicates with the media on the topic of free access to databases. They do not want valuable information to be used in the interest of a party and instead of the public interest. I admit that those fears are pertinent, but, on the other hand, one could certainly establish some clear rules, criteria based on which free access to public databases would be given only to those who do their work honestly and who respect the Journalist’s Code of Ethics.
Unfortunately, it takes the authorities too long to establish the rules of the game. It has already been a year. The fact that we demand free access to public databases is not a fad, and decision makers should understand it. After all, we do our work in the public interest, and the information we deliver does not belong to journalists, but to consumers, citizens. Any delay of the authorities is detrimental to the citizens who elected the current government and, in order not to fall prey to misinformation, they should have access to as much quality information as possible.