Information lost in lats and documents

  • 2000-04-13
  • By Anna Pridanova
RIGA - Last week was a special one for Riga journalists. Two seminars on a very painful question for the local community occurred - on freedom of access to public information.

The definition of information itself seems to reveal the nature of access the public should exercise. But despite the codification of legal procedures stipulating this access, journalists and many individuals claim that they are deprived the right guaranteed under Latvia's constitution and the Special Information Accessibility Law.

Diana Kurpniece, the acting director of the Latvian section of Transparency International illustrated the current situation with results of last year's research on the ease of getting information from governmental, municipal institutions and courts (200 institutions in total). She claimed that it was almost impossible to get information without written request, though it is legalized. In only 80 percent of cases submitting written requests, applicants received a yes or no answer. One fifth of all applications remained unanswered.

A reporter from Latvia's largest daily, Diena, at one of the seminars recalled the situation when she tried to find out how many cars the Ministry of Transport owns. She was subjected to all the bureaucratic procedures required by Latvian legislation that may consume from 14 days up to a month before she was finally told that the Transport Ministry has six vehicles.

Though clerks often hinder journalists in getting wanted data, press people are in a relatively better situation than other individuals without any institutional affiliation. As Diana Kurpniece explained, the volunteers collecting data for this research by requesting the information did not introduce themselves. When getting refused, some attempted to soften the responsible officials, claiming they needed this data for their scientific research. That sometimes helped. Therefore Kurpniece determined a hierarchy of those enjoying highest clerical responsiveness in which journalists led with students right after them.

But the problem seems to also have a territorial dimension. The regional journalists are deprived the clerical attention their Riga colleagues enjoy. Two journalists from Aizkraukle and Bauska explained the situation they have for working in their regions. The journalist from Aizkraukle, Guna Mikasenoka claimed that "some municipal authorities consider themselves to be little kings: They issue the information only when they want."

The normal access to public information in hospitals and other departments and services under the municipality is denied by the highest officials. The municipal officials often prohibit information making just absurd demands, she said: Imagine the situation when the mayor of the city, which has only one newspaper, requires journalists to call a press conference if he has to answer their questions.

The two seminars were interconnected in another way. Conditions described by the local journalists at the seminar arranged by the Journalist's Association were readily acknowledged as a problem by the officials at the seminar organized by the Latvian and Swedish Ministries of Justice. Moreover, Swedish colleagues claimed to have the same problems which Latvia has, although the country has almost a century of tradition in providing transparency through the Ombudsman institution.

The simplification of clerical work possible through development of computer-based information networks would resolve several problems in Latvia. As a possible result, there could be significant cuts in the informational web of red tape. Another result would put journalists and private individuals on the same playing field.

The inequality existing between the general public and reporters is mostly due to their unequal resources. Journalists inevitably have more powerful means, enabling them to cause uncomfortable consequences for officials. Citizens, to get the needed document produced, often have to submit other documents issued in other governmental or municipal institutions. The need to collect different papers from different institutions (and sometimes in different rooms of one institution) ends in getting the document desired after it is out of date.

Armands Kalnins, the head of the State Office of the Civil Service, said his institution provides seminars for only the highest officials, and also distributes a bulletin explaining the current situation. Kalnins still supposes that other civil servants, who are primarily in contact with the public in meeting their requests, do not get relevant training in this field.

"The ministries themselves decide what kind of training they want to give their staff," he said. "I believe they interpret the 'Information Accessibility Law' in respect to the practices established in their own institutions."

Journalists cite problems connected with public servants' inadequate understanding of their duties or their over-reliance on the right to withhold the required information preserved for them under the Information Accessibility Law.

Gunta Veismane, director of the State Administration School, explained that it provides a range of courses. All levels of clerks are always trained in at least three disciplines. Two of them have something to do with public information accessibility - an introductory course on human rights and the basics of the Administrative Processes Law. However, they are not trained in the Information Accessibility Law.

"We can teach people some good things, but I cannot take personal responsibility for their performance at work, when they are back in the same environment they left before the courses," Veismane said.

The state secretary of the Transport Ministry, Uldis Petersons, defended his colleagues in the journalism seminar claiming that their duty to provide required information consumes a lot of time, and sometimes also a lot of paper. One person, he recalled, came to the Transport Ministry and submitted a list of codes and regulations he wanted to acquire, with the idea to reprint and distribute this collection later for a charge. He was not refused, but just redirected to another source (this is still legal).

The moral of this story is self-evident. Transparency costs a lot. And there are some institutions that do not issue information free of charge - the State Archive, the State Register of Enterprise and the State Lands Service.

Marlisa Armansone, a lawyer for the real estate company "Latio," claims that in general there are no problems dealing with municipal institutions in Riga. Though she said that sometimes the budget and finance departments ignore the terms of issuing documents. She also explained that the order of issuing required documents is very complicated and might not be understandable to the non-professional.

The streamlining of bureaucracy in terms of connecting all state institutions in one network, and the rising number of documents available via institutions' home pages on the Internet is also quite an expensive affair.

Petersons also pointed out some of Latvia's valuable achievements in transparency in comparison to neighboring countries, which do not have Information Accessibility Laws. Besides, Parliament is reviewing the Administrative Process Law, according to which the institutions will be obliged themselves to collect the background information for issuing new documents.

While some emphasize the law's flaws and lack of precision and others look to defend and excuse themselves, the question in focus is still the same - how to provide efficient state performance monitoring without wasting taxpayers' money?