Madrid, 16 June 2014 – The Austrian government is on the point of missing an historical opportunity to bring the constitution into line with international standards on the right of access to information, according to open government experts Access Info Europe.
Access Info Europe today welcomed the proposal to abolish the constitutional protection of secrecy, a provision first adopted in 1920, which places an obligation on public officials to maintain official secrecy. But Access Info Europe’s Executive Director Helen Darbishire expressed concerns that the proposed replacement amendment is so weak and limited that it is unlikely to have any impact on freedom of information in Austria. “The proposed constitutional reform by Austria falls way below the standards of international human rights bodies including the European Court of Human Rights and the UN Human Rights Committee,” said Darbishire.
The main problems with the proposed constitutional reform are:
» It does not apply to all branches of government, in particular to the legislative, judiciary, and private bodies performing public functions.
» The list of exceptions is not fully in line with those in the Council of Europe Convention on Access to Official Documents, which Austria has yet to sign.
» The exceptions are not subject to harm or public interest tests, something required by all international standards
» The right of access to information can be further limited by other laws, something unacceptable when considering a fundamental right.
Access Info Europe expressed concerns at recent proposals to introduce new classification and information dissemination controls in the parliament. Access Info Europe stressed classification of documents does not exclude them from the scope of an access to information law according to Council of Europe standards. Access Info Europe noted that various countries have amended their constitutions to recognise the right of access to information in recent years, these include most of the new democracies in Central and Eastern Europe, and Norway in 2004.
In total 28 countries in Europe already have constitutional provisions on the right of access to information, as does the European Union. These should all provide a clear model for Austria to follow.
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