Why is access to public documents important for journalists?

In democratic societies, access to public documents is very important for the functioning of accountability, transparency and accountability of public institutions. In the documents that journalists secure through access requests, they find a powerful tool to reveal some truths and to take care of the implementation of the law by the institutions.

The importance of access to public documents has several dimensions for the work of journalists. Having expenses, decisions and other public documents, journalists take care that the institutions are transparent and accountable to the citizens.

"Here in Kosovo, we have seen that there is extreme interest when the media, through requests for access to official documents, manage to secure the expenses of governors and officials for lunches and dinners and for travel. I think that in terms of increasing accountability for the spending of public money by the authorities, the right to access official documents has a vital role" - stated Besnik Velija, editor of Gazeta Express.

Access to public documents has been facilitated for journalists and media in Kosovo with the operationalization of the Agency for Information and Privacy (AIP). Before its operationalization, journalists or media had to turn to the court in case they were not offered access by the institutions.

"Before the activation of the AIP, the situation was much more complicated because journalists, in the event of the institution's refusal or silence in requests for access, had to turn to the court, and this process consumed years and required a lot of resources, and many of the media did not have objective opportunities" - stated Labinot Leposhtica, coordinator of the Legal Office in the Balkan Network for Investigative Journalism (BIRN).

He has also mentioned the marathon case of BIRN against the Prime Minister's Office for access to lunch/dinner bills and travel expenses for the prime minister, ministers and their staff, at the time when Hashim Thaçi was prime minister. In this case, after the rejection of the request by the institution, BIRN turned to the court and after almost 6 years the court decided in its favor. In this case, the court has established the standard that the public must be informed about how public money is being spent.

"In this case, despite the court's decision, there was still reluctance from the Prime Minister's Office to implement the court's decision and the request was not fulfilled until BIRN sent the case to the private bailiff, who initiated the enforcement procedure under the threat of a fine and after much efforts, the request for access was realized" - added Leposhtica.

The case of BIRN against the Office of the Prime Minister shows that the challenges to access to public documents have been intense, but it has also served as an example to show how a continuous commitment can affect increased transparency and accountability from institutions.

"The important thing is that a standard was built, now the institutions proactively publish the data about their expenses" - concluded Leposhtica.

For journalists, access to public documents is essential to support their reporting with verified facts and to avoid the risk of disinformation. It helps create a strong foundation for accurate and complete news.

"The information provided through requests for access to documents is very important for my work as a journalist. In fact, they constitute the main part of the reporting about the issue for which the request is submitted, and therefore also determines the quality of the final version of the reporting" - Mehmet Krasniqi, journalist and editor of RTV Dukagjini, emphasized.

Out of 171 public institutions at central and local level, only 87 of them have reported to the Information and Privacy Agency about the number of requests for access to public documents. Five of them have reported that throughout 2022 they have had no requests for access to public documents, while 84 institutions have not reported at all.

After collecting and recording these data for the reporting period, from the institutions that reported to the AIP for 2022, the total number of requests for access to public institutions was 4481, of which 3893 requests were offered full access , 409 requests were offered partial access, while 154 requests were rejected.

The Agency for Information and Privacy during 2022 received a total of 207 from citizens (individuals), 138 from NGOs and 76 from the media. The institutions against which complaints have been submitted to the AIP are: 135 against the government department, 121 against municipalities and 165 against other institutions.

"Increasing transparency and institutional accountability is one of the high priority objectives of the AIP. The awareness of public institutions remains a continuous process with the aim of guaranteeing the right of citizens to access public documents, and consequently offering them the opportunity to be part of the decision-making processes in the implementation of the policies of public institutions of general public interest. " - says the report of the Information and Privacy Agency for 2022.

Access requests can be sent by citizens through the platform, developed by FLOSSK with the support of NED.

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