The Balkans lead the way in Freedom of Information

By Henrik Kaufholz, Chair of the ECPMF

The citizens of Serbia, Slovenia, Croatia and Albania have better access to public information than Germans, Danes and Austrians.

Rodoljub Sabic Rodoljub Sabic (photo:privat)

This is the result of a benchmarking study on freedom of information laws (FoIA) in 95 countries done by the Centre for Law and Democracy in Canada. No country gets the maximum of 150 points, but in the top ten you will find Serbia with 135, Slovenia with 129, Albania with 127 and Croatia with 126. Austria and Germany are both in the bottom ten with 32 and 54 points respectively. 

The Nordic countries with a very long tradition in freedom of information (for example, Sweden introduced the first law to secure the freedom of the press 250 years ago) are not even in the top ten. Only Finland with 105 points can look at itself in the mirror.

ECPMF met with the Serbian commissioner for Information of Public Importance and Personal Data Protection, Mr. Rodoljub Sabic, 61, to learn more about this interesting development. After all, the rest of Europe has worked for years to improve democracy, governance and human rights in the region.

Rodoljub Sabic

Commissioner Rodoljub Sabic is a trained lawyer, but has also been an active politician. First as a member of the opposition, then, after the fall of Milosevic, as Vice-President of the Parliament and as Minister. In mid-2003, he resigned and withdrew from politics until 2004, when he was chosen for the position of commissioner by the Serbian parliament.

He is now in his second 7-year-term of office and has already announced that he is stepping down in 2018.

He is a well-known person in Serbia as he is very active to promote the law and publicly supports citizens when they are fighting for their right to get public information.

Had to buy the stamp himself

“The Serbian law is actually very strong compared to other European legislation”, says commissioner Sabic, whom ECPMF met in his office in a government building in central Belgrade. The office is decorated with reproductions of paintings by Miro and on top of the bookcase are a number of national and international awards.  You could easily forget that in 2004 he had to fight just to get a chair. “There was a law and me, nothing else. I had to go myself to order a rubber-stamp so that I could start working.”

“In some countries like Sweden they may have a better practice than the one that is reflected in the index from the Centre for Law and Democracy. In other countries there may also be broader public support for access to public information, but the Serbian law is from an international point of view based on very liberal principles and in practice it has improved continuously. I can also assure you that the Serbian media has learned how to use the law and I actively support that.”

Mr. Sabic actually doubts, that the Serbian parliament today would pass a similar law.

I don’t think that parliament at that time realised the full consequences”.

What kind of information is the Serbian citizen or journalist actually asking for?

“One of the good aspects of the Serbian law is the very broad approach. They can ask for almost everything. But we have very many requests and complaints that requests are not met when it comes to public procurement, public expenses and construction projects. And according to my experience, still a lot needs to be done. In the former Yugoslavia the public had had very little information about how their taxes were used by the state, regions and city councils.”

The Serbian commissioner has the option of punishing authorities which do not hand out information that they are obliged to share with the public. “My decisions are binding and final and from time to time I have to impose a fine. It's not big amount of money, maximum 200.000 dinars (approximately 1600 EUR). I have personally advocated that it should be paid by the responsible bureaucrats – not by the authority. As this would then be the taxpayer who pays for the bureaucracy for not following the law!”

A very active press supports the law

Serbia is still learning when it comes to public access to information. “Two thirds of all cases brought to my office are solved without a formal decision”, says the commissioner. “As soon as the relevant authority learns that there is a complaint to my office, it will conform to the rules. Most of them also hate to have such cases exposed in the press. I would say, that 96 percent of my decisions are followed immediately.”

Rodoljub Sabic states that only in a very few cases his decisions are not respected, and “then the press will write about it. The press is a very important factor when it comes to enforcement of this kind of law”.

The commissioner also counts on the support from NGOs. “The plan to appoint me was met by the NGOs with scepticism. I was after all a former politician and those are met with considerable suspicion in this country. So I called them and asked if they had a better candidate for the job. Well, they were thinking of a law professor. Fine, I told them. But in this job you need a trained lawyer, a legally trained person who is willing to fight – not a person who is used to writing reports. They didn’t persist with their idea and after a year it turned out that could build up a fine relationship with both the press and the NGOs.”

Another success of the office is that commissioner Sabic can now select talented  people. “It’s good for your CV to work here, so I have absolutely no problem to find qualified people.”

And he would like to share another experience: “A commissioner or ombudsman in this field will never be popular with governments or bureaucrats. Human rights are always popular in political parties when they are in opposition. As soon as they move to the government benches they start fighting public access to information. So you have to be very independent and stubborn”.