Strasbourg (virtual participation), 17 November 2020Access Info today called on all member states of the Council of Europe to sign and ratify the Council of Europe Convention on Access to Official Documents – the Tromsø Convention – with a particular call on France, Germany, Italy and the UK to follow Spain in ensuring that Europe’s largest countries are party to the Convention.

Speaking to the Information Policy group of the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers, Access Info’s director Helen Darbishire also called for rapid creation of the Group of Specialists that will monitor the implementation of the Convention after it comes into force on 1 December 2020.

Darbishire recommended recruiting experts with hands-on experience of implementing access to information laws, such as former information commissioners to the Group of Specialists, and called for it to have sufficient funding to be effective.

The Tromsø Convention is about the public’s right to know. The pandemic has highlighted the need to know how decisions are being taken, how funds are being allocated, and to have rapid access to data on health and also on public procurement,” said Darbishire.

There are 47 countries in the Council of Europe region, only Andorra does not have an access to information law, but only 10 have so far ratified the Tromsø Convention.

One problem is that not all the laws meet even the minimum standards of the Convention. During the meeting the representative of Austria, which currently has Europe’s weakest access to information law, falling below the Tromsø Convention’s minimum standard, noted his government’s plans to adopt a stronger law and to overcome an historical culture of secrecy.

Other country representatives participating in the meeting, including from Estonia, Finland, Norway, and Ukraine, stressed the importance of government transparency to protect the Council of Europe’s mission of advancing human rights, democracy and the rule of law.

A well-implemented transparency regime ensures that the public, and watchdogs such as journalists and civil society have the information they need to do their work, to defend human rights, to monitor for corruption,” added Darbishire.

Further recommendations put forward by Darbishire were that all countries sign up to the optional provisions on legislative and judicial transparency. Currently 31 out of 46 access to information laws in the Council of Europe region apply to the legislative branch, whereas only 25 countries have access to information laws that apply to the judicial branch, and there are significant issues accessing court jurisprudence in a number of countries, as recent refusals in Slovenia to provide journalists with court judgments have shown.

Since the Tromsø Convention was drafted, the European Court of Human Rights and the UN Human Rights Committee have recognised that access to information is a fundamental right that should apply to all public bodies. The Council of Europe should ensure that all countries commit to maximum transparency,” stated Darbishire.

Photo by Helen Darbishire, Tromsø, Norway, 2012.