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The Balkans’ freedom of information remains ‘on paper only’

The Balkans' freedom of information remains 'on paper only'

Freedom of Information, FOI, Laws in the Western Balkans are over a decade old. Even though almost all countries monitored by BIRN have laws that are considered well-written, their value is often only on paper, speakers from the region told BIRN’s panel discussion, “Freedom of Information in the Balkans: Calls Not Answered”.

Planned legal changes to FOI laws seem designed to make it impossible for journalists to hold the authorities to account. When implementing FOI legislation, all Western Balkan countries have fallen significantly behind, BIRN’s annual freedom of information report officially launched on Wednesday said.

When properly implementing the laws and granting access to public records, especially to journalists, public institutions prefer to remain silent or answer partially – and not always grant full access to the requested information.

Last year, BIRN journalists submitted 376 FOI requests. Only 134 were fully answered; more than half of the requests were not answered at all (what is known as “administrative silence”), reflecting public institutions’ lack of transparency and proactivity. Lack of political will to fully implement FOI laws is a major drive behind current trends.

Sasa Dragojlo, a BIRN journalist from Serbia, told the panel discussion that it is difficult to get information from Serbian institutions. “It’s like a big groundhog day every year when we discuss the state of Freedom of Information. Even when institutions answer our FOI requests, we don’t always get real information,” Dragojlo said.

The situation is better in Kosovo, where many documents are public. “We see some positive trends, and the political also changed a bit for the better,” Gentiana Ahmeti, a BIRN Kosovo journalist, told the panel.

Regarding political will, the change of government in Montenegro did not bring about any breakthrough, according to Lazar Grdinić, a researcher with MANS NGO in Montenegro.

“The new government, the new power elite, took over the old practices. The state of freedom of information in Montenegro is pretty much the same as it was a few years ago. We need to do more as a society,” Grdinic described the situation.

In North Macedonia, the main problem is the authorities’ silence, information commissioner Plamenka Bojceva told the panel.

“When someone sends a legal request, institutions don’t answer by the legal deadline. Our goal is to change this with regular training for the officers receiving the requests. Political will plays a very important role. What we as an agency try to achieve, although we lack resources, is to overcome this by building institutional standards,” Bojceva said.

When discussing Open Government Partnership OGP problems and perspectives, Sandra Pernar, a senior regional coordinator for Europe with OGP, mentioned the rise of populist movements and governments worldwide.

“Populist parties and politicians use citizen distrust and anger to rise to power. The three most important challenges Balkan countries face are combating corruption, the lack of open civic space and trust in institutions,” she said in a video message.

German Flikov, from the Centre for Civil Communication Skopje, told the panel that one of the biggest shortcomings of OGP is that it depends on the personal commitments of a limited number of people. “The process also requires political will, whether a government minister knows the process”, he said, referring to the previous panel discussion.

The government of Montenegro is working on a new national action plan, the head of the Directorate for Innovation, Openness of Public, Administration and Cooperation with NGOs, from the Ministry of Public Administration, told the panel.

Lidija Ljumovic also added that when working on the plan and two e-platforms, they had “fundamental, contextual and rather rich coordination with the civil sector”.

Serbia is adopting its fifth national OGP action plan, said Milos Pavkovic, a researcher with European Policy Centre. One of the main challenges is that elections and constitutional changes interrupt implementation of the action plan, Pavkovic told the conference.

According to BIRN’s annual Freedom of Information report, public institutions preferred to keep public records secret and not help the public better understand important events or governmental actions. It seems like a trend repeated each year based on data collected from monitored institutions from Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia.

BIRN’s annual FOI report is part of the “Paper Trail to Better Governance” project, funded by the Austrian Development Agency.

Source: Balkan Insight