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Transparency restrictions criticised

May 3rd, 2013

A centre-right columnist finds that the new amendment to the Freedom of Information Act is a grave mistake, but he discloses that he was told by inside sources that the real reason behind it was not to cover up the tobacco shop concession-scandal.

The authorities rejected a request to release the details of the 15 thousand applications for tobacco shop concessions. Under a new system, tobacco products will only be sold in special shops, just over 5000 throughout the country, and the government stands accused of favouring its own  people in the selection of the winners. (See BudaPost April 19). The data request was rejected on the grounds that it would require excessive resources from the administration and thus constitutes ’an abuse’ of the Freedom of Information Act. Several days later, Parliament built a new paragraph into the Freedom of Information Act, stipulating that the authorities do not have to release all the details which official audit agencies have access to. Opposition parties issued communiqués which condemn the amendment, and several independent NGOs withdrew from the consultation body set up by the Ministry of Justice and Public Administration on transparency.

In Heti Válasz, András Stumpf quotes unnamed insiders who told him that the motive for the amendment was not an attempt to prevent the documents concerning the tobacco concession tender from reaching the public. But even if one accepts that the modification is simply aimed at filtering out “abusive requests” that would overburden the respective authorities, the amendment ” is an abomination,” he writes. Although the text does not exclude contracts from public scrutiny, it could lead “to years of litigation’” he argues, before any information can be acquired. There are other ways to ease the burden on public administration – Stumpf argues – such as scanning all documents down to the last invoice, or making the other party pay for the costs of providing the documents. Stumpf thinks the amendment would not stand the constitutionality test and hopes President János Áder will send it back for consideration or turn to the Constitutional Court. Meanwhile, although the timing and the urgency seem suspect, the government can easily dissipate such suspicions by simply publishing the documents related to the tobacco shop tenders – he concludes.

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