The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is a piece of legislation that allows citizens to request access to official documents. In Italy there’s an initiative for adopting a Freedom of Information Act, which was born with the objective of improving the transparency of the government and the administration.
What is the current state of the Freedom of Information Act in Italy? What are the benefits of having this type of law? A panel discussion with six experts and advocates of open government and transparency went live at the Centro Servizi G. Alessi on the first day of the 2014 International Journalism Festival in Perugia.
Antonella Napolitano, Europe Editor at Personal Democracy Media, was the moderator of the panel, which featured Ernesto Belisario, director of the Observatory on Open Government, Paolo Coppola, Deputy of the Democratic Party, Helen Darbishire, the founder of Access Info Europe, Andrea Menapace, cofounder of Diritto di Sapere, and Alexandre Salha, a FOIA activist who has worked for the Lebanese chapter of Transparency International.
Currently 93 countries in the world have FOIA laws. The RTI ranking classifies them according to a specific set of indicators. Even in Europe some countries have a weak FOIA implementation, hindering the work of the journalists and impoverishing the civil society. For example: the recent Transparency Law of Spain disheartened the open government community because it has a lot of exceptions. According to Helen Darbishire “in those countries it’s not a question of getting the right answer, it’s a question of getting any answer.” In the UK the response rate is around 80%, but in Italy it goes down to a disappointing 15%.
One of the main challenges is understanding that information belongs to the public, and the right to access information is linked to free speech. Governments are worried about exposing their own corruption and/or releasing inaccurate data. They just don’t know what might happen when the information goes public. Darbishire referred to one example, regarding death rates by surgeons in the UK. When the data became public there were some concerns regarding the possible effects of the release, but the surprise came when the same surgeons started to look at the documents and share information about it. At the end nothing bad happened.
“It’s not only about fear of corruption, it’s a fear about the accuracy of the data”.
Alexandre Salha is a Lebanese FOIA activist who is fighting to make government data public in his country. Lebanon is at 106th place on the Freedom of Press Index, a list composed of 180 countries, which Finland has led for four consecutive years. He exposed a situation marked by conflict, in which journalists are arrested and threatened by the government. Since 2008 some open government enthusiasts have been trying to build an Access to Information network, with the collaboration of NGOs like the Lebanese Transparency Association, LebPAC, Maharat, and IndyAct. Currently the situation is not so positive: at the beginning of this month the law was submitted to the Parliament but the prime minister withdrew it to study the case again. But there is hope: Salha believes that the Lebanese could have a FOIA law at the end of this year.
The Italian panorama is different. The Law No. 241 / 7 August 1990 provides access to administrative documents, but only with an accredited interest. When Matteo Renzi entered the government in February he promised that he would try to improve the current situation. There are a plenty of government and administration websites with datasets published but many of the documents have inaccuracies. Ernesto Belisario, director of the Observatory on Open Government, noticed a “change of pace”. He said that in the US mainly private companies make requests– not just journalists. “Italy needs investments, and more transparency can help us to attract foreign companies”.
The Democratic Party wants to remove the need for a “concrete interest” to access the official documents.
On the political side, Paolo Coppola, Deputy of the Democratic Party, tried to summarise the efforts of the government. “We have a decree law that is going to be changed into a law”. The main change is that they want to remove the need for a “concrete interest” to obtain the documents. “We want to change the mechanism, so anybody could fill a request with no specific interests and get the response over the internet”.
Andrea Menapace, of the Italian blog Diritto di Sapere, emphasized the need for advanced legislation, adapted to these times. “I would like to have a kind of commission controlling the application of the law”. In the UK there is an independent official body that controls the application of the law and reports to the Parliament on freedom of information issues.
The panel finished with a discussion about the words of Tony Blair, who said in his autobiography that approving the FOIA in Britain was “idiot”. Helen Darbishire concluded: “More participation in decision-making could bring us better laws. Tony Blair is just wrong.”