The state cannot expect regular people to respect the decisions made in courtrooms if state agencies themselves ignore them.
This article was originally published by Átlátszó.hu, a watchdog NGO and online newspaper in Hungary.
Freedom of information requests are essential in a democracy. This tool allows journalists and citizens to learn what people in power are doing or how state agencies are spending taxpayer money.
Freedom of information requests have become an essential tool for journalists in the past few years. Atlatszo.hu itself is running a freedom of information generator website called KiMitTud? (Who Knows What?). The site allows anyone to file a freedom of information request within minutes. Citizens and journalists have already filed more than 11 thousand requests through Atlatszo’s site.
If is were not for freedom of information requests, Hungarian citizens would know much less about key issues; they wouldn’t know, for example, how the central bank’s foundations are spending state funds. However, citizens can also request information about smaller issues, such as the number of dysfunctional fluorescent lamps in the Kelenföld railway station.
government agencies block exercise of freedom of information
However, several government agencies have refused to carry out court decisions in freedom of information request cases. These offices denied or did not fulfil freedom of information requests and were therefore taken to court. In these cases, the court ordered them to fulfil the FOI requests but they ignored the decisions. The Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of Human Resources, the Klebelsberg Center for public education, the umbrella organization overseeing public service media (MTVA) and the Budapest 5th district municipality have all ignored such court decisions.
This may constitute a crime according to the Hungarian penal code. Paragraph 220 specifies that if someone does not carry out a court decision ordering him or her to provide data, the person might be sentenced up to two years in prison.
There has only been one case in which someone was sentenced for not providing the requested data when the court had ordered her to do so. Atlatszo requested data about a TV show that was running on the public service TV channel. It was called Marslakók (The Martians) and Atlatszo wanted to see all contracts and invoices in connection with the production of the show.
Informants are censored
In 2016 the communications director of MTVA was censured by the prosecutor for not giving the data to Atlatszo even after she was ordered by a judge to do so. This was the least severe of the possible punishments.
Szabó writes that, according to his research, no one has been censured or convicted for failure to comply with court orders about FOI requests since the MTVA/Marslakók decision.
This does not mean that the orders are being respected. Recently Atlatszo, for example, requested data about the Erzsébet vouchers. We did not get the data and so we went to court. The judge ordered the relevant agency to fulfill the FOI request. The data was eventually provided to Atlatszo although the deadline for it had already passed. The police concluded that this was not a crime.
Providing the requested data after the deadline is compareable to stealing
Atlatszo’s legal team disagreed, comparing it to theft. If someone steals from another person but later returns the stolen object, the theft still took place. The same applies to public data that was not provided to Atlatszo on time: the fact that the data was provided to us after the deadline means that the judge’s orders were not carried out.
“If the state does not carry out a judge’s orders trust is undermined,” G. Szabó writes, “Rule of law means that the law applies to everyone, including the most powerful. It send a very bad message to Hungarian citizens when state institutions do not carry out decisions made by the judiciary.” This might have consequences for the economy.
“Why should anyone sign a contract with the state or a powerful company if they might not observe the terms of the contract and we cannot even trust that they will respect a court decision?”
Dániel G. Szabó is a lawyer. This story was first published in German on the Verfassungsblog.