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Access to public information during the outbreak


The recent outbreak impacted heavily the daily life and work of millions of citizens around the world.  One of the effects was the suspension of the means of access to public information provided by public authorities.

Analyzing the situation in some European countries, it appears that almost all have taken the decision to suspend or delay the processing of the requests for access or re-use of information.

The emergency situation and the resulting lockdown had the effect to slowing down activities of public bodies; furthermore, some resources and departments were redirected to activities in support of the emergency.

In this scenario, one cannot fail to recognise the difficulties that authorities encounter in keeping a service running at a time when the workforce may be depleted, staff may  work from home and may not be able to access physical files.

The hope is that this will not become the new normal once the emergency is resolved.

Let us see what is the situation in some Member States:



Source : Portal de la transparencia  (https://transparencia.gob.es )

Measures: Reales Decretos 463/2020 and 465/2020 suspended administrative deadlines, with the effect of paralyse the transparency law. Real Decreto 537/2020 lifted the suspension as from 1 June 2020. The activities of civil servants have been reduced and this leads to delays in answering the requests for information.



Source: La Commission d’accès aux documents administratifs (https://www.cada.fr/lacada/faq)

Measures: Law no. 2020-290 of 23 March 2020 and Ordinance no. 2020-306 of 25 March 2020 had the effect to suspend the processing of requests until 25 June 2020.



Source; http://www.cada.pt/noticias/covid-19

The state of emergency established on 18 May last, was downgraded to a state of calamity on 30 April. The state of calamity should end on July 1.

The state of emergency has not officially changed access to information. However, the activities of civil servants have been reduced and this leads to delays in answering requests for information.



Source : Gazzetta Ufficiale

The "Cura Italia" decree-law of 17 March 2020 (art. 67.3) suspended responses to requests for documentary and civic access until 31 May 2020. The state of emergency is in effect until 31 July 2020.

The activities of public administrations are gradually resuming in compliance with anti-covid measures.



Source: https://fragdenstaat.de/

The decisions by the Chancellor and the Heads of the Federal States of March 12 and 22 which limited civic freedom were prolonged until 3 May 2020.

Due to the complex legal framework concerning the access to information, with overlapping between federal and regional laws, it is difficult to monitor the impact of the anti-Covid measures on the activities of public administrations. The website fragdenstaat.de, a hub for requests of access to information is a good monitoring of the situation. The requests are generally processed but several of them are delayed.



Source: https://fragdenstaat.at/

The country published one §(?)Decree on 10 March, an Order of the federal minister for social affairs on 16 March and a Law on 16 March which prohibited assembly and movements of persons. Only the last one is still in force. It allows administrations to prohibit access to certain places to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

As in Germany it is difficult to monitor the impact of the anti-Covid measures on the activities of public administrations. The website fragdenstaat.at, like the German counterpart, gives an idea of the reactivity of public administration; and there do not seem to be any major delays in processing the requests.



Source: transparencia.be

The Arrêté ministériel portant des mesures d'urgence pour limiter la propagation du coronavirus COVID-19

of 18 March 2020 imposed stringent measures to citizens and manufacturing activities until 5 April 2020. Since that date the measures have been gradually relaxed as you may see in a dedicated website. The impact on access to information was limited to the lockdown period. The recent processed requests collected by trasnparencia.be show that the situation is returning to normal.



Source: informacjapubliczna.org

Since the beginning of March 2020, the country adopted over time three regulations called anti-crisis 1.0, 2.0 and 3.0. Version 2.0 in particular had the effect to suspend the time limits specified in administrative law provisions, providing a legal basis for the suspension of the right to information timelines. Defrosting took place on 24 May 2020.



Source: https://www.infoprovsechny.cz/

The Government of the Czech Republic declared a state of emergency from 12 March 2020 to 17 May 2020. A public debate followed the reopening of the activities. The requests for access to information seem now regularly processed.



Source: Decree No. 179/2020

The government declared a national state of emergency on 11 March 2020 for a 15-day period, which was extended for an indefinite period on 31 March. Decree No. 179/2020 issued on 4 May 2020 states that until the termination of the state of emergency, requests for information cannot be submitted in-person or orally and the period for responding to requests is extended to 45 days (instead of 15 days).



Source: Decree No. 195 of 16 March 2020

Presidential decree No. 195 of 16 March 2020 enacted a state of emergency which expired on 15 May2020.  

The Decree included a provision doubling the amount of time that state institutions have to answer FOI requests.



Source: https://data.overheid.nl/

On 23 March the central government ordered all regions of the Netherlands to adopt emergency decrees, under the law on public health. The Amsterdam-Amstelladn Region published on 2 April 2020 an ordinance which prohibited organizing or participating in meetings, until 1 June 2020. The measures taken had a treasurable impact on the access to information.



Source: http://www.pisrs.si/Pis.web/pregledPredpisa?id=ZAKO8183

On 20 March 2020 the country adopted an Act that, among other measures, suspended most deadlines in administrative proceedings including requests for access to information. The Act expired on 1 June 2020.



Source: Government Decision VNK / 2020/31

A Government decision declaring exceptional circumstances entered into force on 16 March 2020.

Here it is reported that the Prime Minister's Office refused a request of the documents of the Corona coordination group headed by Secretary of State on the basis of the Public Access to Information Act.



Source: balcanicaucaso.org

Bulgaria declared the state of emergency on March 13 2020. The expiry date was on 13 May and it was not extended. Instead, it was agreed to declaring an epidemic situation up to June 14.

The underlying measures appears have not targeted right to information obligations. Nevertheless, the government introduced excessive criminal penalties for “fake news” about the virus, which penalized the media’s ability to inform the public.



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