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Reaffirming Freedom of Information in the Western Balkans after COVID-19

Illustration: Pixabay.
On paper, the Western Balkans have some of the most progressive Freedom of Information (FOI) laws in Europe. All OGP members in the region, including Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia have made more than 20 commitments to advance the right to information through OGP.

Montenegro adopted national legislation on the right of access to information while Albania improved the way citizens can track their FOI requests. Over numerous action plans, North Macedonia sought to improve FOI legislation, implementation and raise awareness. Serbia improved the amount and quality of information available on government websites, although attempts to reform the FOI law have hit obstacles in recent years. Croatian civil society noted that legal amendments, guidelines and trainings helped to increase the responsiveness of FOI officers while publishing a database on public authorities that are subject to FOI legislation was useful.

Despite having comparatively strong FOI laws according to the RTI Rating, these countries still face challenges in implementing the right of access to information to its fullest extent. The  COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the challenges in implementing these laws. 

Recently, BIRN found that access to information in the region worsened during the pandemic. For example, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina and North Macedonia saw notable delays in response times to requests. Serbia even used its state of emergency to extend the time period for responding to access to information requests. 

While BIRN journalists submitted 359 FOI requests in 2020, authorities in the region approved only 173 (48%) of them, and partially approved 15 requests with only technical information. Authorities also said they would answer more queries once the state of emergency was lifted. Despite the state of emergency restrictions, Serbian and North Macedonian institutions were most likely to provide full answers to their requests (53% and 47% of requests received full answers respectively) but no requests from BIRN journalists in Albania or Bosnia and Herzegovina received full answers. Administrative silence remains a major issue for the region. Even after repeated follow-ups from journalists, 160 (45%) requests received no answers at all. In fact, 80% of the requests sent to authorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina did not receive an answer.

Notable denials of information occured in North Macedonia such as where political parties did not disclose information about their election campaign costs. Serbian authorities used privacy exemptions to deny access to documents relating to cases against alleged and convicted war criminals. According to BIRN, the restrictive FOI law and the authorities’ reluctance to provide information means journalists in places like Montenegro often use their sources and other connections to get the documents they need.

Western Balkan countries could consider a number of actions to address these issues through their OGP action plans including:

  • Organizing comprehensive, ongoing and effective training on records management and implementing freedom of information laws. 
  • Proactively publishing all their decisions, records, spending and financial budgets free of charge. The data has to be available online, machine readable, and accessible for a broad audience. 
  • Issuing sanctions such as financial fines for officials that reject requests, or who do not respond to requests within legal timeframes without proper justification. 
  • Creating more opportunities for citizens to use published information, develop monitoring systems and provide feedback to citizens.
  • Where amendments to FOI laws in Western Balkan countries – such as Montenegro and Serbia – are proposed, they should ensure that the scope of publicly available information is made wider, that exceptions to access are narrowed, and that the process of making requests is made easier. They should not complicate access or legalise poor practice. 

This year, OGP marks its tenth anniversary and OGP members have been encouraged to co-create ambitious commitments. As most Western Balkan countries will be co-creating their next OGP action plan, this year marks a unique opportunity to turn the needle for enhanced access to information. Whether it be working with civil society to strengthen legislative frameworks, or ensuring the effective implementation of progressive FOI legislation, the Western Balkans can reaffirm their commitment to the essential tools of open government.

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