Is Environmental Information Available to Citizens?
June 28, 2021
On Friday, June 25, the USAID Government Accountability Initiative and the Commissioner for Information of Public Importance and Personal Data Protection organized a Forum on Free Access to Information – “Environmental Information – how difficult is it to access?” to highlight the importance of citizens’ right to free access to government-held information regarding environmental protection governance in Serbia. The dialogue was attended by representatives of state bodies, civil society organizations, academia, and media, and focused on current practices and challenges in the application of this right in Serbia, and the role of civil society organizations and journalists in the exercise of this right. Participants also discussed opportunities to improve and protect the right of access to environmental information.
“Free access to information of public importance is a precondition for a good governance. Environmental information that is easy for the public to find, understand, and use enables citizens to more effectively participate in governance and assures better decision making by state bodies. Above all, civil society organizations and journalists can amplify the efforts of the public and the Commissioner for Information of Public Importance and Personal Data Protection to ensure that the government fully responds to requests for information of public importance.” said Ms. Jacquelyn Williams-Bridgers, USAID Government Accountability Initiative Chief of Party.
“This topic is vital for all citizens in the Republic of Serbia and is particularly important in times of increasingly frequent environmental damage, while the access to the information about harming and protection of environment is not only recognized by the law as profoundly relevant, but also ranks highly in the work of the Commissioner. Organizing this Forum significantly contributes to the exchange of experiences with local and international experts in the area, including the representatives of associations engaged in environmental protection issues and journalists”, pointed out Mr. Milan Marinović, Commissioner for Information of Public Importance and Personal Data Protection.
Participants agreed that public authorities need to proactively publish information of public importance on environmental issues, and to resolve citizens’ requests for free access to information of public importance in this area faster and more efficiently. Civil society organizations and journalists were encouraged by the proposed amendments to the Law on Free Access to Information that would strengthen the Commissioner’s authority to sanction authorities for failing to act on citizens’ requests. At the same time, concerns were expressed about the introduction of two additional grounds for restricting access to information in order to protect the environment. The participants assessed that timely information is a key precondition for efficient public participation in decision-making in the area of environmental protection, and timely access to this information should be ensured by public authorities. Also, it was concluded that it is necessary to educate all interested parties on the right to free access to information of public importance.