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Access to Information 17 Years after the Adoption of the Law

27 December 2017
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Olivia Pirtac, Lawyer

There are subjects in this world that sensitize us and subjects that leave us indifferent. Their ratio changes depending on how involved and affected we feel personally. Access to information is one of those topics that leave most people indifferent, as it seems to be too general and theoretical; it may only touch upon some persons’ sensitive points as they recollect individual cases when the information they needed was not even accessible and they could not find it in time, in spite of their reasonable efforts. The subject is particularly painful for a large number of journalists who have assumed more difficult and risky commitments which are extremely important for society – those who try to uncover the inefficiency, corruptibility, and irresponsibility of those who govern us or whose actions influence our life in one way or another.

Access to Information Is Reduced to Zero in Some Authorities

Recently, the Center for Policies and Reforms has launched a Public Appeal to the authorities to cancel secondary legislation that has a negative impact on the institutions’ transparency. The above-mentioned organization refers to several decisions of public authorities in the Republic of Moldova concerning the way in which officials and public institutions communicate with the population and the media, in particular, the Order of the Mayor of Chisinau No 1063-d of November 22, 2017, On Communication of the Structural Subdivisions of the Local Public Administration of Chisinau Municipality with the Media and Order No 20/1606 of November 20, 2017, of the Minister of Health, Labor, and Social Protection of the Republic of Moldova. The authors of the Appeal mention that “these decisions, which directly affect the transparency of public institutions in the Republic of Moldova, are not isolated; in fact, they are part of a long string of decisions, methods, and instruments, which, taken together, result in greater opacity of decision-making processes and complicate the process of informing citizens” and argue from the legal point of view why such issues contradict the rights already stipulated by the law, unduly restricting access to information.

The shocking part is that these acts, not even by a page, but by one or two paragraphs, destroy all the spirit of transparency which is so necessary in a democratic and progressive society. Thus, the Order of the Mayor’s Office stipulates that “Convening public events (press conferences, briefings, and statements) and issuing official press releases from the local public administration authorities of Chisinau Municipality is the exclusive prerogative of the Public Relations Department of Chisinau Mayor’s Office”. The Order of the Minister of Health, Labor, and Social Protection is more detailed in what refers to the restricting and coordinating everything with the Ministry’s Service for Communication and Information with the Media, including invitations to participate in broadcasts and interviews, not to mention the posts published on the websites and Facebook.

Whereas the Order of the Mayor’s Office, though formal and manipulative, refers to the legislation in force (indeed relevant, but including exactly opposite principles), the Order of the Minister of Health, Labor, and Social Protection is obviously unwise and tells us directly and “open-heartedly” that it aims to ensure a positive visibility of the ministry and the subordinate institutions. As to the subordinate institutions, they are only 50 in the healthcare sphere, but let us not forget that currently, the competence of the ministries is extended, and the number of institutions and individuals concerned is very large.

Does this mean that, in order to come to the show to talk about the danger of flu or social assistance, a doctor or a social worker has to coordinate it with the ministry? It obviously does. We shall not even mention the situation when someone dies in a medical institution and an explanation is needed or millions of other situations when the information has to be obtained from this system. “Fare thee well, access to information!” this is what results from these few paragraphs.
Society must insist on the immediate cancellation of such acts and all similar acts, which probably exist in many other authorities.

Positive Image of Public Money vs. Informing People

How have we reached the 17th anniversary of adopting the Law on Access to Information to draw the conclusion that  the public authorities must have a positive image for public money and that public relations services at the institutions are set up not to facilitate transparency and informing people, but to filter and to polish the image of the institution? How have we admitted the situation when the authorities work against us for our own money, misinform and manipulate us?
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The emergence of such orders and provisions cannot be based on the provisions of the Law on Access to Information. They are contrary to the public interest, good faith, and principles that are superior to the actual provisions of the Law on Access to Information, namely the principle of transparency, the rule of law, and the reason for which public authorities and institutions were created and for which citizens pay taxes and fees. These principles have nothing in common with the selfish idea of some leaders who are afraid of the bad reputation they might get if they were sufficiently transparent.

In fact, as things unfold, we are entitled to demand the destruction of such public relations subdivisions in all budget-funded organizations: society needs objective, effective, comprehensive information, not obstacles, expensive mediation, or some  information polished and decorated to sound good for the image of the institution. (...)