Law on access to information, eight months after

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More than a year has gone by since parliament passed a law giving any member of the public the right of access to information about what government institutions at every level are doing. Whether it's a question of central government decisions here in Prague, or the local town hall, each citizen has the right to request details of all official negotiations, decisions and other aspects of government work. So, what is the situation? Do Czechs get the information they want? Olga Szantova looks into the matter:

The Law on Free Access to Information, passed in May 1999, has been valid since the beginning of this year. It came as something absolutely new and most offices were completely unprepared for it. After 8 months the Cabinet is planning to face the issue again, because various ministries and institutions have been tackling the process of giving information in very different ways.

One of the issues is the cost of information given. The Ministry of Education, for example, charges 210 crowns an hour needed for finding the relevant information. As a result, in one case recently quoted, somebody had to pay 105 thousand crowns for information that, according to the ministry, took 500 hours to find. The ministry does not consider its fees extravagant; the Ministry of Finance charges even more, as Irena Maskova of the ministry's international department told me: To explain, Ms Maskova gave me this example. Should somebody want the overall figure of the ministry's budget, that information would be free of charge. But should he want to know how that lump sum is divided among various schools, the answer would require looking up and there would be a charge for it.

According to the law as it now stands, offices can set their own rules - within set limits. Many only charge for the material cost of supplying information required, printing out the text, for example. And some ministries don't charge anything at all. The Ministry of Defense, for example. But when I tried to find out how that was possible, I had problems getting that information. Pavel Bohac of the Defense Ministry's press department confirmed that the ministry gives all information free of charge. A new department to deal with the issue was established as of July 1st, but Mr Bohac pointed to a problem:

"The only person who can give the information, he told me, is the department's head, and he, unfortunately happens not to be in the office today."

Author: Olga Szantová
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