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Spanish government using courts to avoid freedom of information requests

Source: El Pais - Fri 12th Feb 2016
Spanish government using courts to avoid freedom of information requests

The Spanish government has begun taking legal action to avoid having to answer to taxpayers who make information requests through a supposed transparency law it passed in December 2014.

State lawyers have presented five appeals against requests for information on subjects that include spending at state broadcaster RTVE and the National Mint, as well as the hiring policy at state-owned environmental services company Tragsa.

The PM’s Office has also lodged appeals to avoid having to release reports on the government’s progress on improving transparency.

Spain’s transparency law covers requests for information and access to public documents. When the government denies a request or does not supply sufficient information, members of the public can appeal to the Transparency and Good Government Council, the organ tasked with overseeing compliance with the law.

Generally, its rulings are accepted by both government and the public, but it is possible to appeal its decisions in the courts. But, against expectations, so far it is the Spanish government filing the appeals, in order to avoid answering requests for information.

For example, in August 2015, Access Info Europe, which campaigns for freedom of information, requested copies of the reports that the Spanish government was required to present on its progress within the Open Government Partnership (OGP). The Spanish PM’s Office turned down the request, saying such reports were for internal use only. But the Transparency Council disagreed, and ruled in favor of Access Info Europe, telling the government that it had 15 days to hand over the documents.

Instead, the PM’s Office appealed the ruling. “Lodging an appeal is an option foreseen by the law, but in this case it is particularly surprising,” says Luisa Izuzquiza of Access Info.

Spain presented its first voluntary OGP plan in 2012 and the second in 2014. Joining the initiative – which is led by the United States, the United Kingdom and Brazil, and includes 69 countries – means taking specific action to improve transparency. This essentially involves providing access to information. In the case of Spain, relations with the OGP are coordinated by the secretary of state for relations with congress, who is overseen by Deputy PM Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría.

“The Transparency Council cannot oblige the government to respond, it can only advise it to do so,” says Jesús Lizcano, president of Transparency International Spain, who admits he is surprised by the government’s response.

“Governments are supposed to be transparent: right now there are too many exceptions being made to the law and we need to approve the rules that would develop it,” he says.

The government released an outline of the rules in July of last year, but nothing has been heard since. “The right to know should prevail except in a few outstanding cases,” says Lizcano.

As well as the appeal launched by the PM’s Office, four others filed by public companies are to be settled by the courts.

Recommended Reading :

* Spain refuses to declassify state files from 1931 to 1968

* Spain demands more political transparency

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