New law could help in fight against corruption and ineptitude in government
By Theo Panayides
The saga of Justice Minister Emily Yiolitis, who complained to the police about a Twitter parody account she claimed was offensive – prompting the over-zealous issuing of a search warrant that was later deemed excessive and invalid – continues on Monday, when the issue will be discussed in parliament.
However, Yiolitis’ is not an isolated case. In fact, it turns out that 50 political figures have made similar complaints on assorted matters over the past five years.
Eleven of those cases were reported by ministers, 20 by members of the House, 11 by representatives of political parties (including one by a party leader) and eight by other government officials.
The busiest year was 2018, when 17 complaints were made, while the most peaceful was 2016, which saw only one. Even last year, in the midst of lockdown and pandemic, 11 politicians (including Yiolitis) were sufficiently incensed to demand police action against some alleged wrongdoer.
Given the potential for abuse of power when a public figure goes up against a private individual, those numbers should give us pause – yet in fact they’re not publicly available. They were actually obtained by Nicosia lawyer Achilleas Demetriades, who made a request for information under a new law that only came into force last December.
The law in question (which translates into English as ‘The Law on the Right of Access to Public Sector Information 2017’) is potentially a powerful weapon in the fight against corruption, which of course thrives on secrecy and a lack of transparency.
Even beyond that, it speaks to the simple fact that ‘knowledge is power’, especially when the public sector is often opaque and unresponsive.
Demetriades has already made three applications under the law, including his request to the police for details of the 50 complaints. He also submitted a request to parliament for the so-called ‘Georghadjis List’ of politically exposed persons (unsuccessful, but only because the list was published in the interim anyway), and a request to the foreign ministry for a translation of a German parliamentary report on the Cyprus problem.
The ministry had been dragging its feet, saying they didn’t have an accurate translation, but, following Demetriades’ application, they duly supplied what they did have (however imperfect). Their reply came within the 30-day period specified by the law.
One can easily imagine other scenarios where the law might be useful. In a recent column in the Cyprus Mail, Demetriades suggested, for instance, an application to the finance ministry requesting the total running expenses for the Presidential Palace, or to the ministry of the interior for the number of ‘golden passport’ applications in 2020.
One might also, for instance, send a request to the migration department for the number of pending applications for citizenship, and how long they’ve been pending – or perhaps the number of cases of asylum seekers examined in the past year, and how many were accepted or rejected. After all, though corruption is indeed our biggest problem in Cyprus, inertia and sluggishness aren’t far behind.
The law comes with caveats, of course.
Article 3(3) provides exceptions where revealing the information requested would be incompatible with EU obligations, or would constitute contempt of court.
Article 15(1) states that a public body isn’t obliged to divulge the information if the cost of doing so, in its judgment, would be unreasonable.
Article 19 is the big one, adding several “absolute exceptions”: information which could be obtained by other methods, or which relates to “security bodies” like the police, the Cyprus intelligence service or national guard, or information which is part of a court archive, or which might affect the smooth running of the House of Representatives, or which was supplied on condition of confidentiality.
Other exceptions have to do with national security, international relations, economic and monetary policy, and so on.
Above all, the overriding exception is that personal data can’t be revealed or compromised. Thus, for instance, the identity of the 50 political complainants wasn’t divulged, let alone the subjects of their complaints.
It remains to be seen how requests for more substantive information (for instance, if any of the recent complaints involved death threats) will be handled. It also remains to be seen if a request by an ordinary person will be treated as respectfully as one by a high-profile lawyer. That said, the police did comply fully with Demetriades’ emailed request, and indeed he’s posted his email on his Twitter account (@AchilleasDem), as a possible model for others to follow.
We now know, for instance, that complaints from politicians make up quite a large proportion of total complaints (there were 191 in total from 2015-20). We know that the crimes being alleged “usually” have to do with personal data or identity theft. We know that 10 of the 50 – including, of course, the Yiolitis case – led to a search warrant being issued. We know that 15 of the 191 total cases have led to a criminal prosecution, with more being investigated.
Is any of this vital information? Does it change the rights and wrongs of the Yiolitis case itself?
Not necessarily. But the value of the new law, beyond any individual request, lies in the way it potentially upends the balance of power between the state and individuals, making it easier to hold it accountable.
Public bodies will undoubtedly seek to push back against this new ‘right of access’, trying to limit its scope and interpreting its exceptions as broadly as possible, which is why it’s important for people to make use of the law, in order to establish it as standard practice.
What, after all, are the limits of accessible information? Could we, for instance, examine the numbers behind environmental studies, and see if they’re accurate? Could we discover the cycle count in official PCR tests for Covid? The number of sick days claimed by civil servants? Could interested parties find out more about the towers in Limassol, or the title-deeds fiasco in Paphos?
We won’t know unless we try, yet few people even seem to be aware of their rights, as if numbed by the many decades when information was tightly in the grip of the bureaucrats.
“People don’t ask!” admits Demetriades. “And it’s too bad.”