Hungary: Government Limits FOIA Transparency Law

In an unexpected move last week, Parliamentarians in Hungary took action to change the country's Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in an effort to limit the scope of data accessible to the public under the law. The Freedom of Information Act, known as Act CXII of 2011 in Hungary, is vital to the work of Hungarian journalists who cover government activity and corruption, as it obliges government agencies to make certain information about their activities available to the public either proactively or by disclosing information by responding to FOIA requests. Members of Parliament drafted and approved the amendment in record time. But it must be signed by President János Áder before it can become law.

Image by atlaszo.hu.

Image by atlaszo.hu.

Recently, the number of FOIA requests filed through the public freedom of information request service KiMitTud [Who Knows What] [hu] surpassed one thousand. The website, run by anti-corruption NGO atlatszo.hu, is a useful tool for journalists, and has inspired a group of Hungarian students as well, to start their own blog covering student government spendings using the information obtained through FOIA requests.

Advocates suspect that the amendments were made in response to a FOIA request [hu] request filed by a group of NGOs and media organizations to the Ministry for National Development and the National Tobacco Trade Non-profit Ltd on tobacco license tenders. After the April 27 announcement that the retail sale of tobacco would soon become a state monopoly, tobacco sales licenses distributed last week immediately became the subject of public discourse. The NGOs and news sites called for transparency about the tenders, arguing that the list of licensees proved that applicants with ties to Fidesz, the governing party, had better prospects of winning a license.

Index.hu [hu] reported that MP András Cser-Palkovics, a member of the governing Fidesz party and co-author of the amendment, said that the change was provoked by one particular news site, atlatszo.hu.

Index.hu suggested that news site 444.hu also may have sparked government desire to change the law. 444.hu recently filed a FOIA request for documentation of expenditures by certain factions of Parliament. 444.hu reporter Péter Erdélyi wrote [hu] that he consulted with the Assembly's staff in order to make his request reasonable, yet still, two days later, the MPs submitted the draft amendment.

On April 28, two Fidesz MPs submitted an amendment to the Freedom of Information Act aiming to restrict data accessible to public to the data monitored by two government bodies, the State Audit Office (ÁSZ) and the Government Control Office (KEHI). The amendment, among other things, allows public institutions to refuse FOIA requests if they are “excessive,” but it fails to define what would be considered an excessive freedom of information request. The amendment was passed in less than two days, through a “special urgency procedure” which takes advantage of the governing party's supermajority in Parliament that makes lawmaking “on the fly” possible.

Atlatszo.hu has posted a petition on Change.org [hu] calling on Hungarian president János Áder to withhold his signature from the amendment – according to Hungarian legislation the President's signature would make the regulation approved. In addition to the petition which has amassed over 2,000 signatures so far, examples of individual citizen initiatives also showed up. 444.hu reported [hu] that a 24-hour shop in Budapest also started a petition against the questionable procedures applied in the distribution of the licenses.

In an op-ed published on atlatszo.hu [hu] András Jóri, former Commissioner for Data Protection, wrote that the idea of this “sunshine” law was introduced by a group of constitutional lawyers in Hungary after the country's transition to democracy. Citizen movements and journalists have only been making use of these legal mechanisms since 2000. Mr. Jóri concluded that rule of law has been upheld in Hungary until now — but at this critical point, it is up to Hungarians to keep it that way.

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