Sunday, 24 February 2013

The Transparent State and Its Friends

A small country beset with clientelism, accusations of corruption, and bailed out banks - it's a familiar story, and not just an Irish one. In Austria, citizens are looking to improvements in Freedom of Information legislation to expose wrongdoing.

Florian Klenk is the editor of Falter ('butterfly'), a Vienna-based investigative magazine. In a recent article on his blog, he writes about 'the Transparent State and its Enemies'. Irish readers will find something familiar about it.

The magazine asked the Justice Ministry for a copy of a report by former chief corruption prosecutor; after a six month wait, it has just been refused. The author, Walter Geyer, had no objection to its release. It was just about legal loopholes in the anti-corruption laws, and staff shortages in his department. But Justice Minister Beatrix Karl decided it could not be released because it was an 'internal' report on 'ongoing processes'. This is the same minister, he notes, who has just spent over €70,000 on public relations consultancy.

He gives a number of similar examples: news reporter Kurt Kuch wanted access to a study of educational standards in schools. This was refused because it was covered by 'professional secrecy'; unofficially, they have been told that the teachers union did not want it released. Journalist Georg Holzer wanted to know  how much the state government of Carinthia was spending on advertising. This was refused, and although the Administrative Court decided he could have the information in December, he's still waiting. When Falter asked how much a member of the former cabinet staff was now earning as a ministerial adviser, he got the same response: professional secrecy.

This kind of case was what caused Kuch, Holzer and others to join forces to create a new movement: Transparenzgesetz means 'transparency law', and that's what they are campaigning for. They have already gathered almost 7,000 signatures for an online petition to create a new law. Although Austria has a law requiring federal bodies to provide information, there is also a constitutional duty of secrecy for public officials.

The proposed new law would be based on the Hamburg Transparency Law, passed last year after controversial cost overruns on the building of a public concert hall. It makes disclosure mandatory, requiring the state government to publish an information register of all public data. This covers commercial semi-state bodies as well as state ones.

Whether such a law will get passed in Austria remains to be seen. But if it does, yet another country will leapfrog over Ireland's freedom of information law.

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