Could Croatia become famous by its Information Commisioner?

„It would be wonderful if Croatia became famous for having a good strong Commissioner who is being effective in promoting transparency“ – these are the words of Helen Darbishire and it is hard not to wish the same, especially on this day 28 September  the „International Right to Know Day“.

Passionate about the role of civil society in effecting change, Helen Darbishire is a founder and a former chair of the global Freedom of Information Advocates Network,  which inaugurated the „International Right to Know Day“ in 2002. and 28 September is the day now celebrated around the world.  She is also a founder and Executive Director of the Madrid-based NGO Access Info Europe, established in 2006 to promote the right of access to information in Europe and globally.

Helen has worked for over 20 years as a human rights professional, focusing on issues of freedom of expression and information, media freedom, civil society development and democratisation. Knowing all the above, this day 28 September „International Right to Know Day“ appears  as a great opportunity for conversation with Helen who will also take part in the dialogues and regulation of rules on transparency at the GONGs conference titled “Information Commissioner – in limbo“.

Some four years ago writting about the Proactive Transparency  as a future of the right to information … standards, challenges, and opportunities, you wrote that „proactive disclosure is integral to the transparency that underpins good government, and in that sense has always been part of the right to information, even preceding the more recent development of access to information laws … if done effectively, the result will be greater and more equal access to information whose use and reuse will be of benefit to society as a whole“ – what would you say today – where are we now, when we talk about the EU and also global picture?

Helen: Interestingly the UN Committee on Human Rights in its 2011 General Comment No. 34 on access to information confirmed that „To give effect to the right of access to information, States parties should proactively put in the public domain Government information of public interest.”

This confirms a clear trend in the direction of publishing information proactively. The right of access to information which is linked to the right to freedom of expression cannot be enjoyed adequately without proactively publication.

We are seeing some exciting developments with the open data movement and new open data portals but much more needs to be done to ensure that the information we need to participate actively in decision making, to monitor delivery of public services, and to fight against corruption is available.

What has to be done so that the freedom of information laws serve as an active “pushing” system for more transparent government especially when the need for transparency meets obstacles such as privatisation or national security and should FOI also apply to private companies carrying out public sector work?

Helen: With regard to exceptions – national security, privacy, commercial secrets, etc., it is essential that the exception is applied narrowly and is balanced against a public interest test. This is now possible in Croatia but the practice needs to be monitored carefully.

Next, the law must be broad in scope and apply to all private bodies  carrying out public functions or operating with public funds (at least about the use of those funds, which are the taxpayer’s money). This is included even in the Council of Europe Convention on Access to Official documents.

And now that the right of access to information is a right, we are exploring what is the right of access to information from private bodies, which is a new frontier for the coming years.

„The Information Commissioners often find themselves in the role of the cleaning woman, given the dirty work of making the final decision on requests that no one else in the palace of state really wants to handle“ – it’s you who said it once and last week you were participating at the 8th International Conference of Information Commissioners. Another one without the Croatian Information Commissioner. The reason is simple – he or she hasn’t been elected yet.  But the selection is now finally in progress and concerning everything mantioned, I wonder could you give us some indications about what will be his/her main challenges and how to deal with them, especially now when Croatia became part of the EU?

Helen: I can see three main challenges. First, managing the volume of work which means the Commissioner needs sufficient resources and to be very efficient, learning lessons from other Commissioners. Second, the new Commissioner must be brave and take decisions based on the law, and must be ready to defend controversial decisions and explain them to the public. Third, the Commissioner should work to change the culture, promoting a culture of transparency, which is an educational and promotional role.

It would be wonderful if Croatia became famous for having a good strong Commissioner who is being effective in promoting transparency, in the way that Slovenia has that reputation.

Could you please give us a brief reminder why is important to secure transparency of media ownership and I believe you have a pretty good insight because there is a fresh presentation of Access Info and Open Society Media Program research in 20 countries and the draft recommendations arising from it?

Helen: Yes, we just presented the 10 principles on Transparency of Media Ownership („Ten for Transparency“) in Brussels where they were well received by the European Commission, European Parliament, Council of Europe, and other key bodies. It’s essential that we know who owns the media because the media filters the news we receive and we have to know who the people are who are shaping our news. For that reason, we also need to know where the money that media have is coming from, for example, we need full transparency of state-funded advertising. We need to know who is “buying” favours from the media.

Croatia has a new and good legal framework for transparency of media ownership, and the challenge now is to make it work in practice.

I don’t know if you’ve heard what Ivan Krastev was talking at the TED talk, “Can democracy exist without trust?“ where he, among other things, said: „These days it’s very popular to believe that push for transparency, this kind of a combination between active citizens, new technologies and much more transparency-friendly legislation can restore trust in politics. …Transparency is not about restoring trust in institutions. Transparency is politics’ management of mistrust. We are assuming that our societies are going to be based on mistrust. And by the way, mistrust was always very important for democracy.  … Any unveiling is also veiling.“ What would be your arguments in discussion with him?

Helen: Krastev is taking as a starting point that those of us arguing for transparency are saying that it’s about building or restoring trust. I think that’s not true! Most people who advocate for access to information do so precisely because we know we can’t trust the governments and we need control mechanisms. A healthy democracy must have effective mechanisms to ensure that it functions well. Any complex system needs checks and balances, and that includes transparency.