[Thanks to outreach by Grigory Pasko to bring more Russian voices onto RA.com, we’re pleased to offer this guest column by Ivan Pavlov, Director of the Institute for Information Freedom Development – Bob Amsterdam.] Access to Information is Obstructed in Russia By Ivan Pavlov, Director of the Institute for Information Freedom Development* In 2005, before the adoption of Federal Law No. 149-FZ «On information, information technologies and the protection of information» of 27 July 2006, a group of jurists working together with our Institute for Information Freedom Development (www.svobodainfo.org), initiated a series of court cases to contest the inaction of a number of organs of state who were not providing access to information on their activities in full measure. The reason for going to court became the absence of official websites of some state organs, as well as the absence of certain socially significant information on the websites of other state organs.
Among the categories of socially significant information encountered in normative legal acts, we can name the following: information on the state of the natural environment (ecological information), legal information, information on accidents and other emergencies that threaten people’s safety, information on citizens (personal data), information on the activities of organs of state and organs of local self-administration. The last category, which is sometimes called government information, occupies a special place in this list. Its specificity lies in the fact that the state is the proprietor of the largest volume of socially significant information. Second, state information resources are the most in demand in society. Third, the right to access to information on the activities of organs of state is relatively new for the Russian Federation. The first law in the world on freedom of access to government information was adopted by the Parliament of Sweden in the year 1766. In Russia, the right to access to information was first set forth legally in the Declaration of Rights and Freedoms of the Person and the Citizen, adopted by the Supreme Soviet of the RSFSR in November 1991. That same year saw the adoption of the Law of the RF «On mass information media», which among other things was called upon to regulate legal relations in the sphere of access by journalists to information on the activities of the organs of power. That said, the first law regulating the general part of the information-law sphere appeared only in 1995. An important role in ensuring the right of citizens to access to information on the activities of the organs of state power is played by the federal targeted program «Electronic Russia (the years 2002-2010)», confirmed by Decree No. 65 of the Government of the RF of 28 January 2002, as well as Decree No. 98 of the Government of the RF «On providing for access to information on the activities of the Government of the Russian Federation and federal organs of executive power» of 12 February 2003. The latter normative legal act confirmed the List of Information on the Activities of the Government of the Russian Federation and Federal Organs of State Power required to be placed in public domain information systems. In accordance with the latter Decree, federal organs of executive power are obligated: – to ensure access for citizens and organizations to information on the activities of federal organs of executive power, with the exception of information classified as restricted access information, by way of the creation of information resources in accordance with the List confirmed by this Decree; – to place the indicated information resources in a timely and regular manner in public domain information systems, including on the Internet network. As of today, the organs of power in Russia furnish the public with only 23.6% of the information from that volume that must be found in the public domain. The experts of our institute came to such a conclusion on the basis of the results of a research study on the openness of federal organs of executive power conducted in 2006. Subjected to study were the official websites of these structures, because, in the opinion of the specialists of the institute, it is precisely these websites that are an important source of information on the activities of the state. These websites allow us to make judgments about the transparency of management procedures. By analyzing a website, we can draw conclusions about the predisposition of one or another agency to corruption. We came to the conclusion that today’s power does not even satisfy one quarter of the requirements of citizens for socially significant information – the information the agencies are required to place on websites according to existing legislation. A situation whereby information is found in the public domain is simply not to the advantage of certain structures of state. For example, the Federal Agency for Technical Regulation and Measurement (Rostekhregulirovaniye) did not desire that information on state industrial sector standards be available on the Internet. No wonder – until recently the complete database of standards was being sold for 250 thousand rubles (around a thousand US dollars–Ed.). Such activity most likely brought a good profit. This is a situation where taxpayers were being sold information that had been created with their own money. If in November 2004, 54 federal organs of executive power (out of the 85 in existence today) did not have their own websites, then now there are only two such agencies. These are the Main Administration for Special Programs of the President of the RF and the Federal Agency for High-Technology Medical Assistance. The “troika” of leaders in openness of information consists of the websites of the Ministry of Emergency Situations of Russia (43.8% of the required information is available), Rosnedvizhimost [the Federal Real Estate Cadastre Agency] (39.7%), and the Federal Customs Service of Russia (34.6%). The laggers in the race for the title of “Best federal organ of executive power website” became the Foreign Intelligence Service (approximately 12% of the required information) and the Federal Migration Service (only 11%). It goes without saying that the mass media can not really be considered free if they do not have free access to information. They are not in a position to be able to analyze or competently criticize the activities of an agency if they do not have the complete picture at their disposal. Russia today presents a vivid example of a closed society in the informational sense. The right of access to information has atrophied so much in our country that even judges often do not know that it is prescribed in the Constitution. The fact is that for now, we lack – at a genetic level – an understanding of the importance of transparency of power. We still have a long way to go before we recognize the benefit of this. (*The Institute for Information Freedom Development is a non-profit, non-governmental organization founded in St. Petersburg in 2004 that conducts research on the legal theoretical and practical aspects ensuring the rights of citizens and organizations to access socially significant information, in particular to information on the activities of organs of state.)