The amendments to the law are so comprehensive that at this moment it is impossible to assess whether they have achieved the expected goal so far.
Commissioner for information of public importance and personal data protection, Milan Marinović speaks about new amendments to the Law of Free Access to Information of Public Importance and all challenges that he faces with implementing it in practice.
Did the amendments to the Law on Free Access to Information of Public Importance achieve the expected goal?
The amendments to the law are so comprehensive that at this moment it is impossible to assess whether they have achieved the expected goal so far. I would like to point out that the Commissioner is currently, and that will certainly take some time, acting in parallel both on appeals submitted under the previous text of the law and on appeals submitted under the amended law. Some of the changes will require much more time and practice to assess their effects. And for some of the changes, the effects of their introduction cannot be assessed at the moment since the legal deadline for their implementation has not yet come. Nevertheless, it can be said with considerable reliability that certain changes have already begun to produce their positive results. I am primarily referring to those changes regarding the significantly expanded powers of the Commissioner.
What extended powers did it bring you? Please give examples of where you are already applying them.
We have obtained new powers in dealing with appeals requesting confidential information, the possibility to impose a fine on the authorities for non-implementation of our decisions, and the right to demand from the authorities all information relevant to the appeal decision, especially those concerning misdemeanour liability of the authorities’ actions against the law. Thus, the Commissioner is already issuing misdemeanour orders imposing a fine of 30,000 dinars on authorized persons in public authorities or heads of public authorities in which such persons have not been designated for failing to act on the received request for free access to information of public importance in cases of so-called “administrative silence”. By collecting fines imposed in the said manner, the Commissioner now joins the circle of budget fillers. We have also started filing requests to the competent misdemeanour courts to initiate misdemeanour proceedings against the responsible persons in those authorities that we determine, during the appeals procedure, to have committed some of the misdemeanours under the law.
Why is November 16, 2022, so important?
In terms of its long-term effects, the most important change in the law is inseparably related to November 16 of this year. On that day, the legal deadline expires for all authorities that have the legal obligation to publish Information Booklets on their work via the Unified Information System of Information Booklets platform, which is managed and maintained by the Commissioner. If by then the authorities do not fulfil their obligation and do not prepare and publish Information Booklets on their work in the prescribed manner, the Commissioner will begin to implement his legal authority and file to the competent misdemeanour courts a request for the initiation of misdemeanour proceedings against the managers of those authorities with a fine from 20,000 to 100,000 dinars.
The establishment of this system brings benefits both for citizens who are looking for information and for authorities
This obligation to create and publish Information Booklets on the work of public authorities is extremely important for the more effective realization of the right to free access to information of public importance in the Republic of Serbia. If it is taken into account that the content of the Information Booklet was significantly changed by the amendments to the law, by increasing the number of columns with data on the work of public authorities from nine to as many as twenty-four, which, among other things, includes data on public procurement and paid salaries and other incomes, it can be assumed that citizens, to a much greater extent than before, will be able to more easily obtain certain information on the work of public authorities, and thus the need to submit requests for free access to information of public importance will be reduced.
What benefits do state bodies have, and what benefits do citizens have from the mentioned platform on which public institutions submit reports on their work?
The establishment of this system brings benefits both for citizens who are looking for information and for authorities. In addition to the fact that much more information about the work of the authorities will now be published in advance, citizens will be able to get the desired information simply and quickly, with just a few “clicks” on the computer instead of starting the procedure by submitting a request to the authority and then by filing a complaint to the Commissioner, which, in some cases, meant it could take several months, which in some cases even led to making the right itself absolutely meaninglessness.
This is currently the biggest challenge in the work of the Commissioner’s Office, and we will use all available means to persuade the authorities to respect this obligation
Authorities will benefit from the publication of Information Booklets by no longer being “overwhelmed” with requests for free access to information, and thus increased visibility and transparency of their work will consequently lead to strengthening citizens’ trust in those authorities and their work. The fact that these Information Booklets will be published for the first time on a single platform of the Commissioner will undoubtedly contribute to the uniformity of the Information Booklets of all authorities, their better readability, and as well, easier control by the Commissioner.
What challenges are you currently facing in your work and what do you plan to improve in the upcoming period in the field of the right to access information?
Unfortunately, so far, just a small number, out of the estimated fourteen or fifteen thousand authorities that are obliged, have fulfilled this obligation, so I use this opportunity to forewarn them to do so within the legally prescribed deadline of November 16. This is currently the biggest challenge in the work of the Commissioner’s Office, and we will use all available means to persuade the authorities to respect this obligation. For this purpose, but also to familiarize all interested parties with the changes in the law, we are planning to hold a large number of lectures, round tables, and meetings, and along with all of this, we expect a great deal of support from the media.