Participants in the meeting
On November 26, 2010 in Dessislava Hall in Grand Hotel Bulgaria, Sofia, Access to Information Programme (AIP) held a meeting with the coordinators from the country and journalists from local and regional media.
The purpose of the meeting was to make a review of the results achieved within the three-year project Local Media and Freedom of Information in Bulgaria, financed through the MATRA program of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs and implemented by AIP in cooperation with the The Management & Media Academy/Free Voice
For these three years, AIP held 26 training workshops with journalists from 41 Bulgarian cities. The Dutch FOI expert Roger Vleugels and AIP lawyers Kiril Terziiski and Alexander Kashumov presented tactics for successful use of the access to information law before 478 participants, out of them – 396 journalists from 168 local media and 82 citizens. A team of ProMedia - Broadcasting Training Center Foundation produced two documentaries: Media and Access to Information - Five Investigative Reporter Stories and Right to Know Day at the demand of AIP. The specialized Access to Information and Journalistic Investigationsweb site was launched. The legal help and court representation provided by AIP legal team in cases when journalists search for information resulted in favorable court decisions, changes in administrative practices and increased use of the Access to Public Information Act (APIA) in journalistic investigations.
Data from the State Administration Directorate at the Council of Ministers show that in 2009 the number of access to information requests filed by journalists has considerably increased, D-r Gergana Jouleva pointed out, outlining the goals set at the beginning of the project implementation and the results achieved.
“The effect of all the work done during these three years not only by AIP and the coordinators, but also through the active cooperation of the local and regional media, for the dissemination of knowledge about the efficiency of the APIA, is interesting. As a result of the publications in the media, of the broadcasts of the documentaries, of the active involvement in public debates of the AIP team and coordinators, of the active cooperation between journalists and NGOs in the country, public awareness of the right of access to information has considerably increased,” D-r Jouleva emphasized.
Gergana Jouleva, Martijn Elgersma, Zhivka Georgieva
„I congratulate the Access to Information Programme, the Management and Media Academy/Free Voice with the excellent results, but I also congratulate all the members of the regional network for continuing to strife for transparency,” Mr. Martijn Elgersma, Deputy Head of Mission, Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Sofia addressed the audience. “The project Local Media and Freedom of Information in Bulgaria in Bulgaria really has been an outstanding example of MATRA cooperation. The success of the project was building a network of coordinators-journalists in the regions of Bulgaria. I think it has been impressive what has been achieved in this respect in a relatively short period of time by both the Access to Information Programme and its Dutch partner MMA/Free Voice,” Elgersma emphasized.
“Where initially AIP was mainly confronting authorities and state institutions, and pressuring them to increase their transparency, I have seen signs now that the current government is starting to realize the importance of implementing the freedom of information act,” Mr. Elgersma concluded.
Remarks and conclusions were shared by the Dutch FOI expert Roger Vleugels who took part in the 26 training seminars held in the regional cities in the Country.
„The total travel distance I made in Bulgaria is 5,282 within these three years. I had to fly nine times and I had to learn a lot. I learned to know your country a little bit, but I also learned to know my country more because of what I have experienced here,” Vleugels said.
“During this project I visited a country in the early stages of becoming a democracy, of the early stages of having an independent press. And it is good to see that you use the APIA as a tool to enforce the position of the press. For me it was very rewarding to be a tiny person in this process,” the Dutch expert stressed out.
“AIP is without any doubt one of the most important freedom of information offices in Europe. A result of the work of mainly AIP is that your country has by far the most matured freedom of information culture of the whole Balkans. Of course, AIP does not do it alone, but together with you,” Vleugels emphasized.
Nikolay Ninov, coordinator of AIP country network of journalists, opened the panel for journalists who have used the APIA in their work.
“We have been longing for a meeting like the one today not only as an ending of the project since the number of journalists in Bulgaria who use the APIA is not so high,” he commented. Ninov sees as a necessary continuation of the project the organization of completely practical trainings where specific cases will be discussed and requests would be formulated and filed.
Pavlina Trifonova, journalist from 24 Hours daily, who has been using the APIA since its adoption and has sued two Bulgarian governments for access to information with the assistance of AIP, sees the moral satisfaction from the obtained access as very important.
“Wave the APIA as a flag to pressure the administration. The APIA is the principle framework to put your questions in, to pressure the persons who should be open and disclose information,” Trifonova recommended to her colleagues. According to her, the role of the journalists in translating the legal acts to the citizens is very important.
Zdravka Masliankova, a journalists from Yantra Dnes, town of Veliko Tarnovo, stressed upon the political and corporate pressure that have been often exercised especially over local media. Such pressure dictates the content of the publications. She emphasized that a title of an interview taken from Roger Vleugels in June 2008 – The Government Should Realize They Are Not Owners of the Information – is today as valid as two years ago. Despite the difficulties and sometimes the complexity of using the APIA, she also thinks that the moral satisfaction from the obtained access to information is worth it.
Petya Gaidarova, Nikolay Ninov
Pavlin Ivanov, journalist from LovechToday believes in the educational effect of the APIA and the filing of access to information requests.
„In Lovech things have been improving,” he said. At the same time, reporting on the results of requesting and obtaining information encourages citizens as well to be more active. That is why Ivanov stressed upon the role of the network of journalists in the country.
Petya Gaidarova, correspondent of the Trud daily for the town of Smolian, focused on the peculiarities of communication with institutions whose head offices are at distance.
“When the institutions are at 150 – 200 km away, do not answer phone calls, official press releases might be the only source of information,” she commented on the reacting mode as Roger Vleugels calls the habit of journalists to wait till the government generates and sends out news.
For his active and efficient use of the APIA for doing his investigations, AIP has twice awarded journalist Rosen Bosev with the Golden Key for the Right to Know Day. Bosev works for Capital weekly.
“I respect the work of colleague journalists from the country since it is easy to criticize in a big city where nobody knows you. It is much more difficult to reveal wrongdoings of people whose children go to school with yours,” Bosev addressed the participants. One of the tactics he applies in his investigations is to use the grounds in the decisions refusing him access to information as basis for his next requests for access to information.
Kalina Grancharova from Tutrakanski Glas newspaper uses the APIA mostly to obtain copies of contracts for public procurements and audits of the municipality as the local government accountability is important. Her satisfaction comes from the fact that the disclosed information is useful for everybody.
Ivanka Vateva, editor of Posrednik newspaper in the town of Pleven, has been using the APIA since 2006.
“I am very happy that the law exists and that AIP opened our eyes for its efficiency,” she said. The tactics that Vateva prefers is to file requests on specific topics every six months. “Such a retrospective approach always reveals discrepancies in figures,” the journalist from Pleven admitted.
Tsvetan Todorov from Naroden Glas newspaper in the town of Lovech has been an AIP coordinator since 2007. He emphasized the practical benefit from the training seminars held under the project with local media journalists who called the Dutch expert our Roger. Tsvetan Todorov commented regretfully on the lack of power division in small towns, which is the biggest problem in his experience.
“I don’t have problems accessing information in Yambol, I litigate,” commented AIP coordinator for the town, Diana Boncheva. Her experience shows that it is often better to file a request as a citizen, rather than in her capacity of journalist. “When I file a complaint against a refusal in the court, signifying that I work for a newspaper, they require higher court taxes,” she said.
As a confirmation to the statement that local authorities often block the flow of information to too critical local media, Diana Ivanova (Delnik newspaper), another journalist from Yambol, shared that the PR officer of the municipality prohibited electronic messages to be sent to the journalists from Delnik newspaper.
According to Hristo Hristov from Capital weekly, the APIA is the most powerful weapon of Bulgarian journalists.
“Access to Information Programme is doing a missionary job. There is no other nongovernmental organization with such an influence on a national level. They have reached peoples’ conscience to the extent that people would be confident that there is a law that guarantees their right,” Hristov commented. The tactics he recommended is to build a strategy for access to information requesting based on the presumption of being denied.
“Do not forget that you are the voice of the society. Always complete what you start,” recommended the journalist.
AIP statistics shows that for 2010, AIP legal team has provided legal consultation in 84 access to information cases of journalists, Kiril Terziiski, a lawyer in AIP legal team said. Most often access was denied on the grounds of the third party’s interests, personal data protection, and trade secret exemption.
In November 2010, the AIP legal team scored the highest result in its practices – 10 court decisions, all of them repealing the access to information denials, Alexander Kashumov, head of AIP legal team emphasized.
Access to contracts of state and municipal institutions, commercial information; documents related to the past; information revealing wrongdoings and corruption; information related to EU funds are the main topics of interest to journalists.
Access to information court cases, especially brought up by journalists, has a very educational effect upon the administration, Alexander Kashumov added. APIA is being used as a protection against libel liability. The number of cases in which journalists use specific tactics to obtain access to information has being increasing.