SU-PRO-MEDIA | 29.06.2018 15:25 > 29.06 15:32

Officials for Denying Access to Public Documents

According to the latest, 2016 report of the Kosovo government’s Public Affairs Office, 2,050, or 90 percent of the 2,169 requests from journalists and media to be granted access to documents and information of public importance were approved. A poll taken by the Association of Kosovo Journalists, however, in which only 50 journalists took part, claims that the access to such material was denied in 78 percent of cases.

Vehbi Kajtazi, editor in chief of the Insajderi on-line investigative reporting outlet, says that his collaborators in as many as 80 percent of instances were not provided the information they sought.

“There are numerous cases in which we asked for access to public documents but to no avail. Institutions are well aware that journalists haven’t got the time or energy to initiate applicable procedures and file complaints, knowing that the process may take even five or six years. So they take advantage of such a state of affairs. In other countries, such as the U.S. for example, a complaint of a journalist is looked into within 24 to 48 hours,” Kajtezi says.

Jeta Xhara, director of the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) for Kosovo, says that the Agency for Personal Data Protection should be renamed the “agency for protecting the prime minister and politicians from the public,” and the official in charge of enabling access to public documents “the official for denying access to public documents.”

“All that this official is doing is finding ways how not to give us the documents we ask for. It is very interesting to observe how those officials that should enable access to such documents understand their job. Forced to follow orders of their superiors, who terrorize and pressure them, they are actually turned into officials denying access to documents of public importance,” Xhara believes.

The media and journalists mostly ask for information on how the Kosovo budget is used, as well as on various decisions, contracts, tenders, capital investment and subsidies.

Xhara adds that the biggest problem is to obtain information on the content of contracts and that they encounter incredible resistance when they want to see the statements on the money spent through credit cards issued to officials by the state.

“We asked for the statements on the expenditure of the prime minister and six deputy prime ministers in 2013, as well as all other later prime ministers. The Agency for Personal Data Protection rejected our request explaining that in this way we could learn about the prime minister’s diet – whether he ate vegetables, meat or something else – which is a personal matter,” Xhara added.

The most striking example, however, was the refusal to reveal the content of the Agreement on the sale of the Kosovo electrical power system, within which the hydro-electrical power plants were given away free of charge. A contract on the construction of a highway made with Behtel & Enka, which the public has had no insight into so far, according to media claims contains a provision prohibiting the publication of the document, which is in violation of the laws and the Constitution of Kosovo.

“In February we asked for the documents on the funds spent to mark the anniversary of Kosovo’s independence and we have been waiting for an answer ever since. And these are the documents that should show what the Kosovo taxpayers’ money was used for. They simply refuse to allow us to see these documents. I think that many of them would reveal some serious offences and that many officials would be prosecuted as a result,“ Kajtazi claims.
According to Kosovo laws, Kosovo institutions and agencies are obliged to post on their websites all tender agreements, decisions, decrees and other documents of significance for the public. Depending on the content of an agreement or contract, however, this obligation is not always met, neither is the obligation of the Agency for Access to Public Information to respond positively to requests coming from the media. And that is not where the entire problem stops: the media and CSOs recently prevented an attempt to change the Law on Access to Public Information for the worse.

“The latest initiative we prevented in cooperation with civil society activists was an attempt by the Anti-Corruption Agency to change the law so that politicians would no longer be obliged to mention the cash they possess when reporting their assets. The Agency said: ‘Let them report their homes and land, but not their cash.’ In other words, it tried to help them hide their cash from the public. We heard about this initiative, reacted instantly and demanded an explanation, and after only 24 hours the Agency director said that we have misunderstood him,” Xhara said.

BIRN filed a report against the Agency for Access to Public Information and it took five years for it to win the case and yet another year to finally be granted access to the documents it sought. The Govori movement and the GAP Institute were also victorious in court, but the rulings have yet to be implemented.

Petrit Colaku, a researcher in the Association of Kosovo Journalists, says that the only solution to have the Law on Access to Information of Public Importance implemented is to follow the procedure. In other words, if a journalist does not receive an answer within the specified period, he or she should turn to the Ombudsman, and then to a prosecutor’s office.

Vehbi Kajtazi, however, points out that journalists rarely have enough time, energy and financial resources to follow a procedure which is not likely to end positively for them. He adds that if they want to report on the matters of immediate interest, they have to publish their findings without the information they need to completely corroborate them, and, as a consequence, they come under fire from politicians. A part of the public succumbs to such propaganda, which creates an impression that journalists are actually aggressive.

“There is still no culture of transparency and communication with the media and the public. What lacks is accountability and the calling of those not abiding by their responsibilities to account. Furthermore, they [politicians] always have something to hide,” Kajtazi says.

He adds that a way out is ensuring the proper functioning of the courts, which should consider the procedures launched by journalists over a denied access to information of public relevance as being of priority. Such cases should be tackled within a month or two at the most, so that institutions should be forced to make the documents sought available to the public.

“If they do not implement a court decision, they are violating the law. If an official is prosecuted for that, and if some of them are sentenced to a prison term and some others fined, they would learn to obey the rules and would not hide documents but would accommodate those seeking such information,” Kajtazi says.

Although the Kosovo Law on Access to Information of Public Importance is good, the Agency supervising the process is not an independent institution. Because of that, the CSOs and media believe that the Kosovo judiciary, as an independent institution, should discipline by more efficiently implementing justice, those institutions that are not acting transparently and are violating the public’s right to know.

(KosovaLive / Beta)


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