Access to information lames behind the law

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If you want access to an official document in the Czech Republic it is your right, thanks to a law that was passed in 1999. Officially at least, the days of faceless bureaucrats working from vast fortress-like offices with no regard for the public are over. But a new book which has just been published, claims that there are many cases of the law being broken, often by state bodies themselves. Alena Skodova has more:

The law on free access to information was first submitted by Senator Michael Zantovsky and MP Oldrich Kuzilek, and both have now written a book which explores how the law has been implemented since it came into force. The book, called Freedom of Information, was launched on Tuesday in one of Prague's popular bookstores, and Michael Zantovsky introduced it to me:

"In the book we have summarised two year experience after the bill was passed, the experience of authorities who provide information to citizens and of those citizens who try to access the information that the authorities collect. It's not an easy process by any stretch of imagination, it's sometimes a difficult process because it is in the nature of every bureaucracy that it does not part with information happily. That's why this law has to exist and that's why it stipulates the rules under which the authorities are duty-bound to provide information".

You wrote it as two parliamentarians, did you collect people's opinions on the issue?

"Yes, when we were drafting the bill, we were consulting it with a number of institutions, with the government, with our colleagues in parliament, but also with citizens who tried to obtain some simple item of information and were told that was none of their business. So we tried to make it the business of the government to provide information that it collects for taxes from all of us."

There has been an ongoing debate in Czech media about how the law is or isn't being implemented, and whether bureaucratic institutions are at last beginning to show their human face. One positive development has been the amount of information now available on the web sites of nearly all Czech ministries and other state institutions. There was an interesting case recently of a woman who took her complaint to the courts, when the local authority refused to tell her why she had not been allocated a council flat. She won the case. But does her experience mean that institutions are still dragging their feet?

"We are very pleased with the experience so far in 90% of cases, in the remaining ten we encounter resistance by the authorities and some of the cases have had to be taken to courts, and there are also a few instances where the law itself does not cover every possibility, and we are now thinking about amending the law slightly, based on this experience, to provide for all possible circumstances."