European Federation of Journalists (IFJ)

Statement on Access to Information in the European Union

The European Federation of Journalists believes strongly that the issue of the right of access to information held by the institutions of the European Union is of crucial importance in building support for greater unity among pluralist, accountable and tolerant democracies within Europe.

The EFJ believes that the Amsterdam Treaty signed by European Union Governments in June 1997 contained a genuine commitment to granting greater public access to documents and towards creating a more transparent administration within the EU.

Article 255 of the Treaty states that "any citizen of the Union. …shall have a right of access to European Parliament, European Commission and Council documents". The new right of citizens to put complaints to the European Ombudsman on access to documents covering justice and home affairs reinforces this commitment.

The EFJ has welcomed the statements by the Commission President Romano Prodi and his Commission about the need for a more transparent and open administration within the European Union.

For these reasons, the EFJ believes that current discussions within the institutions of the European Union on a revision of the policy first agreed in 1993 and, in particular, on the adoption of a new regulation on access to documents must maintain and improve the existing standards of access in order to honour the commitment made at Amsterdam. We note that new measures must be agreed by May 2001 in order to come into effect within two years of the signing of the Treaty.

With these points in mind, the EFJ makes the following remarks concerning the draft regulation adopted by the Commission in January 2000:

1. The EFJ is dismayed that the process of preparing a new regulation has not been made public. All groups within civil society should be encouraged to participate in the debate regarding new policy. Even at this late stage public consultation over draft texts should be considered.

2. The EFJ believes that it is crucially important to clearly define the moment of greater disclosure. For example, the draft regulation text should have been made public when the first draft was itself distributed for internal discussion within the European Commission.

3. The EFJ insists that European Union policy should not undermine policies of greater openness that are in force in some member states and, therefore, the regulation should be a 'decision', since it is designed to apply within the European institutions. It should not be applicable in all Member States. To enforce the issue as a regulation may ensure the "loyalty" of Member States, but it could be used to diminish the standards of openness currently enjoyed at a national level by the citizens of some states.

4. The EFJ considers it important that the right of access to documents shall be extended to all citizens in the EEA and the applicant countries.

5. Regarding some specific elements, the EFJ states:

Article 3

We believe that administrative documents need to be clearly defined.

The term "institutions" must apply to all and shall also include all other European bodies with which the major European Union institutions have direct relations, such as the European Central Bank, etc.

Article 4

The EFJ believes that in this section the text should read: The institutions may (instead of shall) refuse… This is an important amendment that provides for review and flexibility according to the circumstances. This discretionary power should remain.

Under this article, each of the points under a) must be specified. We believe that the last point 'the deliberations and effective functioning of the institutions' must be deleted. This is too vague and general and may lead to widespread and arbitrary refusal of the right of access.

The EFJ insists that some form of examination before the decision to refuse access is taken, is vital. Each time there is a refusal, this must be specifically explained and justified on a case-by-case basis through a process of exclusion and exemption.

Under point d) the EFJ believes the following words should be added: 'as requested on specific grounds'. This reinforces the need for a precise explanation where information is withheld. Additionally, documents supplied from third parties and which form part of the decision-making process must not be excluded from the requirements of access. They should be properly in the public domain unless there are primary exceptions, such as in matters of public security.

Article 5

As the representative of working journalists' organisations, the EFJ believes that a fast track response to a request for information is important especially with regard to issues of major public interest. In some cases we believe that it is not unreasonable to insist on a response within 48 hours of a request being made. Certainly, it is unacceptable to extend interpretation of "exceptional cases" to extend the time for replying to a request from the current one month period to two months. The EFJ believes that time limits need to be shortened not extended.

Issues that constitute matters of public interest need to be identified on a case-by-case basis. More precise wording that reflects a clear understanding of public interest obligations is required.

Article 7

The EFJ appreciates the improvements being made with regard to Article 7, point 4 that includes the possibility of abridged versions of documents being supplied with, if necessary, sections deleted if they are covered by one of the exceptions under Article 4.

Article 8

This provision covering the denial of the right to reproduce a supplied document " for commercial purposes" should not apply to news. It must be possible to report on public documents effectively and through the commercial processes of traditional media and journalism. The text should be clear about the forms of commercial exploitation that are forbidden.

Article 9

The EFJ also believes that standards of registering incoming and outgoing documents must be more clearly defined. There must be the principle of establishing a register of secret and non-secret documents. Standards in this area have to be defined internally.