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Freedom House NGO News, Issue 20/2002
Unfinished business

Gergana Jouleva,
Executive Director, Access to Information Programme Foundation

By 1999 Bulgarian citizens lacked means to control the government and find proper revenues of public participation in the system other than elections.
Reforms were uneven. The direction of change was often unclear. The Government was not restricted from looting the economy.

Access to Information Program (AIP) founders believed that access to information is a precondition to public accountability and citizens' participation in the system. Its mission: To facilitate implementation of Article 41 of the new Constitution (1991), which establishes that "everyone is entitled to seek, obtain and disseminate information."

Debate and legislative advocacy

In 1996 AIP first initiated and later maintained public debate on the importance of freedom of information and sought passage of a formal act. Previous attempts had not developed beyond the the working grouproup level. No program existed at the time to set rules and procedures for I disclosure of documents on the operations of the Government apparatus and services of the old regime. There was no strong public pressure, either.

AIP recruited journalists who volunteered to document refusals across the country. AIP collected those cases, commented and provided legal advice to those refused access. Existing legal regulations were put into a database that allowed information on demand; it was a means to facilitate ongoing training in legal standards. AIP disseminated the results to relevant bodies, sharing lessons learned.

In early 1998, the government included the idea of FOIA in its legislative program. AIP drafted a "Concept Paper on Access to Information Legislation in Bulgaria" through a systematic analysis of the existing legislation and comparative studies of FOIA in other countries. Public discussions raised awareness of recommendations.

AIP carried out extensive advocacacy campaign to promote access to information legislation at each stage in public hearings on alternative ideas and the bill put forth by the government. AIP translated the draft Into English, sent it to partner organizations in Europe and North America, and invited expert comment.
The law, although not perfect, stipulated rights and defined the duties necessary to provide public information. It was a necessary step. Attitudes of those seeking and disclosing information have changed since the adoption of FOIA. Most journalists
continue to seek information orally, but with increasing reference to FOIA. Individual citizens and NGOs have begun filing requests. Similarly, the conduct of the public administration tends to be aware of the fact that disclosure is required by law and not a matter of good will on behalf of public servants.
AIP actively participates in professional and public discussion on the bills on classified information and personal data protection. AIP continues to collect and document cases of refusal. It conducts surveys on how central and local government bodies perform their duties in providing information.
Since the adopton of the law, AIP has received 475 cases of refusals, 338 of them related to violations of te right to access information.
Free legal assistance to NGOs and citizens is more structured after the adoption of the law. AIP has served mainly journalists and NGOs in cases of access denied through a range of consultations, appeals and representation.
Access to information requires that people know their rights and how to exercise themthat the administration is aware of its duties and that lawers and magistrates know the practice. AIP organizes seminars, workshops, and discussions; it publishes and disseminates manuals on how to use the law. Each year AIP summarizes its experience in its "Annual report of the Current Situation on Access to Public Information in Bulgaria".

For five years, AIP pursued its mission by:

• Monitoring existing legislation and advocating for better access to laws;
• Monitoring practices used to seek and obtain information in Sofia and 26 district centers wheree AIP has local journalist coordinators;
• Providing legal assistance to citizens, journalists, and NCOs in cases when central and local government bodies and other public institutions refuse access to information;
• Regular public education campaigns on the necessary regulations and their implementation;
• Civic education of journalists, NGOs, and the administration

Access denied - sample AIP cases in 2000-2001

A citizen was denied access to a letter, containing an interpretation of a tax code procedures, despite such information being published privately in brochures

An NGO was denied information on the number of signals and complaints of ethnic discrimination filed with the Chief Prosecutor's office

An NGO was denied access to documents and contracts of companies designing and constructing a major highway artery

An NGO was refused information about the National Health Insurance Fund budget and reports, operations, procedures, and resources

AIP was refused by the Ministry of Education and Science to obtain copies of the instruments, concerning the teaching of Islam and chrictianity as elective subjects in school.

An NGO was denied minutes taken at a meeting of ministerial and expert bodies on environment, despite representatives of other environmental NGOs being present.



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English Version • Last Update: 22.02.2002• © 1999 Copyright by Interia & AIP