A non-governmental-organisation (NGO) urged the government this week to make further amendments to the bill on freedom of information (FOI) by removing fees for making requests as these dissuade people from exercising their human right to access information.
Access Info Europe, a human rights organisation based in Spain and dedicated to promoting and protecting the right of access to information, said that Cyprus risked becoming the only country in Europe to charge fees for submitting requests.
Campaigner and Researcher with Access Info, Andreas Pavlou, addressed the House Legal Affairs committee earlier in the week, and called for the draft FOI law to be amended to remove fees for making requests and to reduce time limits for responses.
Access to information is a fundamental right, Pavlou told MPs, and lawmakers have a duty to ensure that this right can be exercised without having to pay charges.
“Not only would upfront charges dissuade people from exercising their human right, it is also a form of double taxation because citizens already pay taxes for the public administration to perform these basic functions like organising information,” he said.
The NGO said that Ireland was the only country in Europe to charge fees for making requests, but dropped this requirement back in 2014 after reform of their access to information law.
The group also stressed the need for Cyprus to meet European transparency standards by ensuring only limited exceptions to access in cases where disclosure would cause harm, unless there is an overriding public interest in disclosure.
“Currently, the draft text includes absolute exceptions such as information relating to commercial interests which would leave little room for the public to hold public officials accountable for the way public procurement contracts are awarded, such as the much-delayed development of Eleftheria Square in Nicosia, or the changes to Limassol Marina,” the group said in an announcement.
In 2015 Justice Minister Ionas Nicolaou defended the FOI bill, against criticism from the same NGO, which, following an analysis of the draft text using the Right to Information Rating indicators, found that Cyprus would come in at position 97 of 102 countries globally, and that it would not be able to sign and ratify the Council of Europe Convention on Access to Official Documents. The group had called for significant amendments to the draft law such as recognising the fundamental nature of the right, including all public bodies in the law, reducing the number of exceptions, and removing other obstacles such as the requirement to provide ID when requesting information.
Pavlou had said that the Cypriot government would adopt “an embarrassingly weak law”.
Nicolaou had said that on the contrary, Cyprus aspires to have among the best possible FOI legislation in the EU, and restrictions on access to information would only apply to cases where it was necessary.
He had said that such criticism was premature and harsh, especially since it concerned a first draft that had been publicised specifically to get feedback from stakeholders.
State officials maintain that the law would change the entire practice of the public service as until now, access was prohibited and allowed under certain circumstances, while with this bill, access will be allowed and prohibited under certain circumstances.
A 2011 report by Access Info and its Cypriot partners found that over 70 per cent of requests sent to public bodies in Cyprus result in administrative silence, whilst only seven per cent of answers contained the information requested.