The EJA Is Against Restricting Access to Public Information through Excise Duty Act
The European Journalists Association - Bulgaria has declared it is against restricting the access to public information by ad hoc changes to transitional and final provisions of laws that have nothing to do with the topic.
Here is the position of EJA in full:
Last week, a group of MPs tabled an Act to amend the Excise Duties and Tax Warehouses Act. The Law on Access to Public Information is also surprisingly amended by transitional and final provisions, in addition to the Civil Aviation Act, the Corporate Income Tax Act which are being amended in a variety of matters that have nothing in common. Thus, imposing an excise tax on smoking tobacco, which has a certain percentage of glycerin, surprisingly affects the way in which the cost of access to public information is determined.
This is scandalous for two reasons - 1. because it is made "through the back door" in the hope that it will obviously pass secretly and 2. because it may lead to abuses by institutions that impose excessive fees and thus restrict access to information.
What is the current situation?
Under the current regulation, access to public information is generally free of charge, and only the costs incurred in providing public information should be paid according to standards set by the Minister of Finance. They cannot exceed the material costs for providing them. According to the issued Order No 1472 of November 29, 2011 of the Minister of Finance, the expenses are BGN 0.50 for a floppy disk, BGN 0.50 for a CD, BGN 0,09 for a photocopy, and BGN 1,15 for audio cassettes, etc. So far, there have been neither cases of divergent interpretation of the order nor a problem with its implementation.
What is tabled?
The bill proposes to abolish the power of the Minister of Finance to mandate these expenditures and to accept instead that "applicants pay material costs for providing public information." The statement of reasons said that the possibility for these expenses to be determined by the Minister of Finance presents an objective risk for strict compliance with the stated legal requirements. However, if the changes are accepted, each institution - ministry, agency, municipality, parish, etc. will determine the material cost itself.
The Association of European Journalists is very concerned, first and foremost, with the way changes are being made to such an important law as the Access to Public Information Act and once again through transitional and final provisions, being done through changes in a law that has nothing to do with APIA. Secondly, we consider the proposal to be unfounded, non-reasoned, it lacks an impact assessment of the legislation, as well as detailed and substantiated motives based on a concrete analysis of problems related to the implementation of the Minister's order so far.
Finally, we believe that the legislative approach, in which laws are amended without debate, without sufficient time for consultation with interested parties, without a proper assessment of the impact of the legislation and especially through a change concerning the right of access to information, as one of the fundamental constitutional rights, which is not consulted in the NA legal commission and goes through a completely different law, is a sign of poor legislative technique and threatens the way the democratic process works. The approach chosen by MPs undermines confidence in their way of working and raises doubts that the amendment has goals, diametrically opposed to those stated in the motives.
In conclusion, we would like to remind you that the right of access to public information is not only a fundamental constitutional right, but it is crucial for the work of journalists and for the functioning of democracy. The uniform approach, where the cost of access to public information is minimal and is only related to the cost of a piece of paper copy or a disk, is one of the positive elements of the APIA and the Minister's order. Any deviation from this rule creates dangers of arbitrariness, unequal treatment and hence of discrimination. This is especially true for small localities where their regional media are still having difficulty accessing information. We will only recall the decision of the Kavarna Municipal Council, which tried to introduce a “journalist” fee less than a month ago.
Public information belongs to the whole society. Access to it is an essential tool for informing, in particular, journalists about what is happening in the administration and the decisions on which the entire society depends. It should remain free and the costs of materials should be kept equal and to the minimum.