On 5 June 2017 the Sofia Administrative Court (SAC) declared unlawful the denial of the Bulgarian President’s Secretary to provide access to the minutes of consultations chaired by the President on 14 July 2014. The document marked as “confidential” recorded a discussion addressing the problems of the Bulgarian financial system following the bankruptcy of the 4th biggest commercial bank (KTB) in the country, which happened under suspicious circumstances. Former President Plevneliev whose administration classified the document for a period of 5 years said he agreed with the restriction as it was still necessary to protect national security and the confidentiality of consultations chaired by the President.
The case was initiated by the journalist Ilia Valkov from the BiT television channel and supported by Access to Information Programme (AIP). In early 2017, at the beginning of President Radev’s mandate, journalists and NGOs filed 45 requests for access to the minutes of two meetings held by the former President with top politicians and officials. Both meetings referred to the KTB crisis and the necessary measures that had to be undertaken in order to minimize the damages to the (banking) system.
SAC found that the refusal of Mr. Radev’s administration lacked detailed explanation of the potential harm that could result from the document’s disclosure. The court stated that the minutes were of high public interest and probably contained information that had been sensitive 3 years ago at which time the restriction was possibly justified. However, the respondent in the case failed to explain why the data in question would still jeopardize a protected interest long after the 2014 circumstances had changed.
The court also noted that the consultation process could be protected for no longer than two years under the relevant law (Article 13, para.3 of APIA) and that the opinions of the participants in the meeting cannot actually be classified as information related to national security. On another hand, the possibility of granting at least partial access was not even considered in the Secretary’s response to the initial request.
“This victory in court sets a precedent, carrying forward the understanding of the importance of transparency in decision-making and narrowing the scope of secrecy”, said Alexander Kashumov, head of the AIP legal team and legal representative of the applicant.
The 2014 bankruptcy of KTB provoked strong criticism of the controlling bodies within the Bulgarian society and was followed by 25 criminal charges. The financial crisis was followed by the resignation of the 2013-2014 government and the holding of parliamentary elections in the autumn of 2014. The consultations led by the President on 29 June and 14 July 2014 assembled top officials and politicians to discuss the issue. According to media publications, a capital control option was also mentioned as a possible solution to the problems.
President Radev announced that he would not appeal the court decision and would start a process of declassification. On Friday 9 May, the President’s administration published the minutes of the 29 June meeting following another SAC decision issued a few weeks ago.
“The SAC judgment widens the limits to access”, commented Gergana Jouleva, executive director and founder of AIP. “The information at issue is inevitably linked to a public debate, even though it relates to a consultation process held by the President. This aspect of the court decision touches upon the question of whether it is right to restrict the access to information shared within the consultation process forever for the sake of protecting the open debate in that process. However, the time limit set by the law for the protection of that interest had expired and that is the right answer given by the court. The second important matter in that case relates to the justification of possible harm following the document’s disclosure. Such explanation was not supported beyond the simple reference to the Protection of Classified Information Act, which appeared to be insufficient in the eyes of the court.”