Serbia, in 2004, for the first time, passed a law regulating the public’s right to know or, as our constitution calls it, the right to information epitomized in the citizens’ right to have free access to information of public importance held by the public authorities.
The same law established an independent state body to promote and protect this human right: the Commissioner for Information of Public Importance. Independent experts, at the time, objectively and well-deserved, declared this law one of the most progressive and best due to the breadth of rights it provided, the efficiency of its implementation, and its protection. But even such law lacked suitable provisions that would encourage public authorities to proactively and transparently publish information about their work but rather dealt more with the procedure to access information of public importance, from its start by submitting a request for that access till its adoption and execution of the Commissioner’s decision following dissatisfied seeker of information complaint, regardless of who it was: individual citizens, journalists, or civic associations.
Admittedly, the situation was quite similar in other countries globally. The year-on-year increase in the number of requests for free access to information submitted to public authorities and, hence, an increase in the number of complaints submitted to the Commissioner by dissatisfied information seekers shows that the proactive publishing of information held by the public authorities is necessary. Acting on those complaints, it’s notable that, in not a small number of cases, public authorities deny citizens even information about their work that, which by its nature, should be transparent and public, such as information on budget spending, conducted public procurements, the authority’s organizational structure, the salaries paid amount, the authority’s interim regulations, the governing body decisions, the scope of competence, powers and obligations, the services it provides to citizens, the means of work and the facilities it owns or uses, as well as information in its possession, its availability and the way of submitting a request for access to that information.
Information Booklets of government bodies were recognized as an effective way to solve this problem. Hence, a legal obligation was introduced that certain government bodies, those at the highest level, must create and publish an Information Booklet with basic data on their work. Unfortunately, it turned out that this obligation did not produce the desired result. Neither all the authorities fulfilled this obligation, nor was the number and quality of data on their work sufficient. Besides, those bodies that published Information Booklets did it in such different ways on their internet presentations that citizens were confused because they were in a situation where they found out information about the work of one body relatively easily while finding out information about the work of another authority, they had to invest a rather great, unjustified, effort. That led to the fact that when working on drafting amendments to the law, the aim was to find a better and more efficient way to force the authorities to publish information about their work proactively.
The solution was found in several directions. First, the need for public authorities to publish and thereby make all information about their work available to citizens that, by the law, is considered information of public importance was introduced in the first article of the law to highlight the importance of this obligation formally. Secondly, the range of government bodies that must prepare an Information Booklet has been significantly expanded so that now, in addition to the classic government bodies (such as the bodies of the Republic of Serbia, autonomous provinces, local self-government units, and public companies), the so-called “subsidiaries” also have this obligation and even companies and legal entities whose founders they are. Expressed in numbers, until the changes in the law, this obligation was on about 3,700 authorities, and now it is estimated that it is on at least ten and maybe as many as 15.000 authorities.
Thirdly, the scope of data that the Information Booklet of government bodies must contain has been significantly expanded so that instead of the nine types of data it contained before; it now contains twenty-four different types of data. Fourth, for the first time, it is regulated that Information Booklets of all authorities must be prepared in electronic and machine-readable form and published through a Unified Information System, managed and maintained by the Commissioner and according to its instructions. Thus, all Information Booklets of the authorities in Serbia will be equally created and searchable by citizens. Also, to comply with this obligation, the Commissioner, for the first time, received the power to file a request to the competent misdemeanor court to initiate misdemeanor proceedings against the head of the authority that does not prepare and update an Information Booklet.
The prescribed sanction is a fine of 20,000 to 100,000 dinars for this misdemeanor. It is concerning that until this day, out of over ten thousand authorities that must create an Information Booklet, only a little over a hundred authorities have created it, and only twelve have published it in the Unified Information System. Fortunately, although the law’s implementation began on February 17, 2022, there is still enough time to fulfill this obligation since the deadline is till November 16, 2022, so I expect that a large number of authorities will promptly do what is necessary. To facilitate the fulfillment of this obligation, the Commissioner, in cooperation with the OSCE Mission in the RS, has developed a video tutorial for authorities on preparing and publishing an Information Booklet properly.