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Freedom of information: holding the state accountable

ΠΑΡΑΛΙΑΚΟ ΜΕΤΩΠΟ ΠΕΡΙΚΛΕΙΣΤΗΣ ΠΟΛΗΣ ΑΜΜΟΧΩΣΤΟΥ ΓΙΑ ΠΡΩΤΗ ΦΟΡΑ ΜΕΤΑ ΑΠΟ 45 ΧΡΟΝΙΑ

The power of the individual to ask for information from the state is of paramount importance

By Achilleas Demetriades

TODAY marks International Anti-Corruption Day. UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres has stated “Corruption is criminal, immoral and the ultimate betrayal of public trust…”
To highlight the above I saw fit to bring up the right of a person to obtain information from the public sector.

This was voted in three years ago and enters into force on 22 December 2020.

The relevant Cypriot legislation is Ο περί του Δικαιώματος Πρόσβασης σε Πληροφορίες του Δημοσίου Τομέα Νόμος του 2017 (The Law on the Right of Access to Public Sector Information 2017) (“The Law”) and can be found only in Greek) at http://www.cylaw.org/nomoi/enop/non-ind/2017_1_184/full.html and is extensive.

The Law appears to follow the Council of Europe Convention on Access to Official Documents which entered into force on 1 December 2020 and can be found at https://www.coe.int/en/web/conventions/full-list/-/conventions/treaty/205 and Cyprus should also ratify same.

The right of a person to access, and the consequential obligation of the State to provide, information is a leap forward for accountability and transparency on the island. This is a welcome boost to efforts in combating corruption.

Clearly, there are exceptions (absolute or conditional) and in fact quite a few in relation to security forces, national security, defence, international relations, the economy and investigations by public authorities. These are beyond the scope of this short note

The architecture of the Law allows a person to request from the state, which is obliged to provide within 30 days, the relevant information.

Actually, the public authority has a duty to assist the applicant and advise within reasonable limits.
The term “public authority” is not confined to the government apparatus but extends to the legislature and judiciary and covers local authorities as well as semi-governmental organizations.

Perhaps of equal importance to the creation of this right to information, is the establishment of an Information Commissioner who, under the Law, is the Commissioner For Personal Data Protection.

The Information Commissioner has, inter alia, the competence to evaluate the compliance of any public body with the Law and address suggestions and directions, as well as to report those who infringe the Law.

More important though is the ability to decide upon complaints and the power to conduct investigations and the right, after due process, to impose an administrative fine of up to €5000 as well as €50 per day if it continues.

Last but not least, there are provisions for criminal offences punishable by imprisonment of up to one year and/or a fine of up to €3000 upon conviction. These relate to alteration or non-disclosure of the information requested and also covers instances where a person intentionally delays or obstructs the application of the Law.

The applicant is entitled to be informed if the public authority holds or not the information requested.
An application must be in writing (and this includes electronic communications) and the name and address, for purposes of communication, must appear along with a description of the information requested.

The applicant may choose to request a copy or apply for access to the register or even ask for a summary of the information.

There is nevertheless the requirement of the payment of a fee (to be communicated by the authority) before proceeding to process the request.

The public body has 30 days to reply and in case the request is denied it must refer to the relevant exception relied upon as well as provide reasons for this decision.

In such an event, the applicant may file a complaint with the Information Commissioner who following a due process will finally decide on the matter.

The Commissioner has the power to conduct a search and its decision is taken after hearing the parties concerned.

Furthermore, in addition to dismissing or allowing the request to proceed the Commissioner has the power to impose an administrative fine on the public authority.

This final decision of the Commissioner may be the subject matter of a recourse before the Administrative Court under Article 146 of the Constitution.

It is obvious that this is a novel procedure both for the applicants and the state authorities that will be the recipients of the requests.

Even though the entry into force of the Law has been delayed by three years there does not appear to have been much information to the public about the introduction of this right.

Clearly, the power of the individual to ask for information from the state is of paramount importance in holding the state accountable. I guess only time will tell on how this will be put to good use.

Perhaps one can start by asking the speaker of the House of Representatives, by email, of the total amount that the “Georghadji list” mentions and then go on to ask (without requesting names) the amounts which correspond to the specific political parties in the House.

Someone else could ask the Ministry of Finance for the total running expenses (excluding salaries) say from January – March 2020 for the Presidential Palace?

One may even consider asking the minister of interior the total number of golden passport applications made in 2020 and how many of them have so far been granted or dismissed.

Last but not least the owner of property in Varosha or, for that matter, any other occupied area, can ask the land registration office for the latest valuation they have on record, for one’s specific plot of land.
Clearly, the list of questions is endless and there are a number of exceptions that the public authority can rely upon to avoid answering.

Nevertheless, the ability to apply for such information (and in particular by email to, say, the Director General of the appropriate Ministry or even the head of the authority) creates an opportunity for the individual.

This opportunity, coupled by the 30-day response time under the supervision of the Information Commissioner, creates prospects for greater accountability and transparency in the State, which in turn is a strong move in the fight against corruption.

  • Achilleas Demetriades, Advocate, is Partner for Lellos P. Demetriades Law Office LLC

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