How Available is the Information to Citizens During the COVID-19 Pandemic?

How Available is the Information to Citizens During the COVID-19 Pandemic?

September 25, 2020

USAID Government Accountability Initiative and the Commissioner for Information of Public Importance and Personal Data Protection organized a Forum entitled Access to Information in Times of Covid-19 Pandemic to mark International Right to Know Day celebrated worldwide on September 28. The dialogue on the right to free access to information of public importance was attended by representatives of state agencies , civil society organizations and media representatives who explored strategies to promote and improve access and the free flow of information in the Republic of Serbia during  the  pandemic. In addition to Serbian experience presented by Ms. Slavoljupka Pavlovic from the Office of the Commissioner and by Mr. Predrag Kon, the Member of the COVID-19 Crisis Team, the participants had the opportunity to hear experiences from the region from Ms. Anamarija Musa, an international expert on freedom of information and a former Croatian Commissioner for Information of Public Interest, and shared and discussed the role and importance of civil society organizations and journalists in providing information to citizens during the pandemic crisis.

“Free access to information of public importance is a precondition for a democratic society and is critical to assure respect for human rights. During a global health crisis such as the coronavirus pandemic, public access to information is more important than ever before. The right to access information is also essential to ensure governments are held to account for their policies and public spending during this time. Above all, civil society organizations and journalists are critical contributors to the efforts of the CPI to ensure that government is fully responsive to requests for information of public importance and, more broadly, that the public is well-informed” said Ms Jacquelyn Williams-Bridgers, USAID Government Accountability Initiative Chief of Party. 

“At the time of the COVID-19 pandemic, when the whole world is facing a great challenge to respond to this severe health crisis, the importance of the free access to information of public importance in general, and especially information concerning threats and health status of citizens, was recognized. Despite the fact that no one could be ready for the crisis that befell us, the impression is that the Commissioner and his office have successfully adapted to the new situation and that the right to free access to information of public importance during and after the state of emergency was not denied. In cooperation with the USAID Government Accountability Project, this forum was organized as another significant contribution to respecting the public’s right to know, especially in crisis situations such as the one we are in”, pointed out Mr Milan Marinović, Commissioner for Information of Public Importance and Personal Data Protection.

Forum participants agreed that there was a lack of reliable and timely information to the public on pandemic-related topics, including public health, preventive measures and spending public funds to procure equipment. It was also concluded that there is no functional mechanism of inspection supervision over the implementation of the Law on Free Access to Information of Public Importance and that the competent Administrative Inspectorate often fails to exercise its powers and conduct inspection supervision, including submission of  requests for initiating misdemeanour proceedings.

Forum participants gave recommendations for improving the right to free access to information of public importance. Some of the recommendations are that the amendments to the Law on Free Access to Information of Public Importance prescribe shorter deadlines for the Commissioner and the Administrative Court to act when deciding on requests related to endangerment and health protection; to enable proactive reporting at the local level and to provide a decentralized reporting system on all issues related to the pandemic in the local community; that special attention should be paid to improvement of access to information for vulnerable groups, and that awareness of the importance of e-government and the storage, processing and provision of access of the public health data should be raised.

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