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From 15 Days to 45 Days. Access to Information in Moldova and Other Countries During the Quarantine Period

10 April 2020
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With the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, several governments across the world made decisions limiting journalists' access to information, including by extending the time for answering their queries on matters of public concern. In Moldova, this period was extended from 15 to 45 days. Many journalists were outraged by this decision. At the same time, lawyers point out that the restrictions on access to information should be proportionate to citizens’ interests.  

In the Republic of Moldova, the legal deadlines for answering information queries and complaints have been extended three times. These deadlines are specified in the first decision of the Commission for Emergency Situations, issued on 18 March and, according to the document, are valid throughout the entire state of emergency, that is until 15 May. The usual deadline for responding to such requests is 15 working days at most and can be extended by a maximum of 5 if it involves a large amount of information. Thus, tripling the response time would mean 45 working days of waiting, and in some cases – 60 days.

Similar Examples From Other Countries

In Romania, this deadline was extended two times throughout the state of emergency. According to the Romanian legislation, public institutions have the obligation to answer in writing to requests for information of public concern within ten days or, as the case may be, no later than within 30 days since the request was registered, depending on how complex the request is.

In fact, that decision was criticized by Harlem Désir, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, who argued that, in this way, public access to pandemic-related information might end up being limited.

On the other hand, in the other neighboring country, Ukraine, the deadlines remain unchanged for now (five working days and, respectively, 48 hours in some cases). However, an initiative to extend this period was registered with the Verkhovna Rada. In reality though, according to some local journalists, some institutions are already refusing to provide information in due time, referring to the state of emergency.

Other European countries adopted restrictions as well. France, for instance, suspended all legal deadlines for up to one month after the state of emergency end date. The Government of Georgia, in turn, issued a resolution suspending the deadlines for releasing public information and, respectively, granting authorities the right not to comply with requests for access to information. Italy too, allowed the authorities to suspend all actions related to requests for information, unless they cannot be postponed, as well as in the case of requests related to the pandemic and health emergencies. The deadlines for public sector procedures were suspended in Spain as well.
Similar decisions were adopted in some US states, both by local and central authorities. The FBI, for instance, announced on its official website that it can no longer answer to requests in due time. On 20 March, over 130 non-governmental organizations, including media NGOs, signed a call to transparency.

‘Authorities’ Indifference Towards Journalists and the Public’

Investigative journalist, Lilia Zaharia, believes the extension of the time of response to requests affects both journalists and citizens wishing to receive updated information. “The tripling of the response time for providing information during the state of emergency is yet another proof authorities’ indifference towards journalists and the public because if the media does not have access to information of public concern, so necessary during this period, the readers, viewers, and radio listeners are the ones at loss,” she explained.

The journalist admitted that during this period the authorities are under pressure to manage the state of national emergency, but also believes that ‘the lack of communication, transparency of authorities’ work only deepens the informational abyss’.

The Right to Information ‘Is Not Absolute’

Lawyer Tatiana Puiu argues that the right to information ‘is not an absolute one and can be limited during the state of emergency.’ According to her, governments in countries affected by coronavirus curtailed their activities to focus on managing the pandemic. “In such conditions, the realization of the right to information can be restricted for the simple reason that the information providers will not be able to respond in due time,” the expert explained.

Tatiana Puiu went on to say that tripling the time of response to information requests affects journalists too, because of their responsibility to disseminate information of public concern. She believes that, in this case, the best solution for not allowing violations of the freedom of expression is for the authorities to provide truthful, up-to-date and complete information.

The lawyer pointed out that governments were given recommendations by international organizations on how to act in times of emergencies and that it is important for governments to follow them. An example would be the Council of Europe: “The Council published a set of recommendations and tools for governments on how to deal with the pandemic so that democratic principles, the rule of law and human rights are observed. According to this document, 'The public’s access to official information must be managed based on the existing principles set down in the ECtHR caselaw. Any restriction on access to official information must be exceptional and proportionate to the aim of protecting public health.' At the end of the day, the choice between abuse of power and good governance belongs to the authorities.”

Asked by Media Azi to explain the reasoning behind the tripling of time for providing public information, the Government representatives stated that they would provide an answer ‘within the legal time frame prescribed’. However, we did not receive any answer up to the publication of this material.