Editorial: Secretive government damages democracy

Government

The following is the editorial from the July 17-30 biweekly edition of the Budapest Business Journal.

The amendments to the Freedom of Information Act, passed July 6 in a special procedure that precluded debate in Parliament, inflict more damage to democracy in Hungary than almost anything this government has done. Given the record of Fidesz since it took power five years ago, that’s saying something.

For democracy to function, citizens need to know what their government is doing, which is the reason for having a law covering Freedom of Information (FOI). The FOI law is supposed to outline the procedure for requesting official information, and to spell out the government’s responsibility to hand over that information. 

As described by opposition MP András Schiffer of the LMP party, these new amendments basically mean that if our leaders unilaterally decide information is important for making a decision they can choose to ignore an FOI request. Furthermore, the amendments allow the government to charge money for information requests that are determined to require “extensive work” to put together – though the definition of what is a lot of work and how much it will cost is not made clear.

Critics have complained that, under the new amendments, virtually all the information about the controversial upgrade of Hungary’s nuclear power plant at Paks can now be hidden from the public. Other important information will also be denied to us.

In the past, questions on everything from contracts handed out by the public media authority to the extravagant travel bills of János Lázár, head of the Prime Minister’s Office, have been successfully investigated through FOI requests. But now we can expect an end to any such checks on the use of public money and public power.

The regrettable amendments to the FOI law were passed using another anti-democratic device favored by the current government, “fast-tracking” of proposed laws: Fidesz takes advantage of a loophole that allows them to put bills up for vote in Parliament without any debate. Using this technique after they took power with a two-thirds majority in 2010, Fidesz passed hundreds of laws, and essentially rewrote the Constitution in ways that increased their grip on power and reduced the democratic voice of the populace.

In 2013, Fidesz used the fast-track technique to pass its first changes to the FOI law. At the time, Transparency International said the law “heralds a dark age for democratic governance in Hungary. The law will now allow government officials to get away with bias in their actions and could see corruption go unseen and unpunished.” The changes just passed on July 6 finish the work started then, making FOI requests not only difficult to pursue, but practically impossible.

As the Fidesz leadership continues its efforts to limit information, the only thing that remains transparent about this government is that they want to maintain their secrecy at any cost, even if it means damaging democracy.

 

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