Bill Gives People The Right To Know

The State Duma on Wednesday is to consider in a third and final reading a bill spelling out citizens' right to gain access to government documents and outlining punishments for officials who do not comply.

The bill, comparable to freedom of information laws in other countries, would require officials to disclose, upon request, any information controlled by the government -- such as court rulings, budget expenditures and government permits -- that has not been deemed a state secret.

The authors of the bill and transparency campaigners said the law could be a powerful tool for citizens in dealing with the country's notoriously reticent bureaucracy and its firm grip on information that, by law, should be in the public domain.

"We consider this to be a very positive law that will reduce corruption at all levels and will increase people's trust in the authorities," Valery Komissarov, head of the Duma's Information Policy Committee and one of the bill's authors, told The Moscow Times in an interview Tuesday.

The law, which would require federal, regional and municipal officials to respond to citizens' requests for information within 30 days, would reduce corruption by empowering people to ask questions about how budgetary funds are spent, said Komissarov, a deputy with United Russia. Bureaucrats will have more difficulties trying to "pull the wool over people's eyes," he said.

While various existing laws oblige officials to disclose information about the government's activities to their employers -- taxpayers -- the bill attempts to spell out in a single law citizens' right to know, as well as punishments for bureaucrats who refuse to cooperate.

Under the proposed legislation, a citizen can request information from authorities via the Internet and should receive a reply within 30 days.

Officials are obliged to provide information that has not been classified as a state secret, although if the -information has been published earlier they can merely provide the applicant with a date and place of publication.

Officials who do not comply can be fined or even handed prison sentences of up to five years if the withholding of information causes serious bodily harm, Komissarov said. He cited the example of the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, when Soviet authorities waited several days to release the news of the explosion at the nuclear power plant, exposing people to radiation.

Ivan Pavlov, a St. Petersburg lawyer and freedom of information campaigner, called the bill "very promising."

"It has a few shortcomings, but these are nothing compared with the positive social effect it will have," Pavlov, who heads a nongovernmental organization called The Institute for Information Freedom Development, said in a telephone interview.

The law could help fight "legal nihilism" in the country, Pavlov said, employing a phrase used by President Dmitry Medvedev to describe rampant corruption in Russia.

Information on budget spending, construction projects and the results of government inspections remain largely inaccessible to the public, Pavlov said.

The problem with current legislation is the implementation, Pavlov said. Judges, for example, will often reject citizens' inquiries if they are seeking information that does not directly concern them.

"If I ask for financial information about budget spending, the court will say, 'It doesn't affect you directly, you don't have the right to this information,'" he said.

Pavlov cited the construction of the Gazprom Tower in St. Petersburg as an example of improper state secrecy.

The giant business center, incorporating a skyscraper almost 400 meters high, has sparked controversy in the city, whose center is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

In 2007, St. Petersburg resident Yelena Doilnitsina wrote a letter to St. Petersburg Governor Valentina Matviyenko and another senior city official asking to see all the permits and documents that allowed the construction to go ahead.

Doilnitsina's request was rejected on the grounds that the project did not directly concern her. A court subsequently upheld the officials' refusal to disclose the documents.

The proposed legislation would make judges more likely to grant access to information by lumping all the regulations together in one document, Pavlov said. "When there is just one combined law, it will be much better, much more understandable," he said.

The bill was first mentioned in a 2005 address by then-President Vladimir Putin to lawmakers and senior government officials. But it has taken a long time to hammer out because it went through a "great number of consultations" and had to receive approval from federal ministries, Komissarov said.

The Economic Development Ministry has been working on the law since 2002, but the bill faced "huge opposition" in the Duma, Pavlov said.

Nonetheless, the bill was passed in a first reading in January 2007 and in a crucial second reading last month. Should it be passed at Wednesday's Duma session, it will be sent to the Federation Council for consideration. If approved there, it will go to President Dmitry Medvedev to be signed into law. The law would come into force in January 2010.

Several Duma deputies criticized the bill in its earlier readings because it specifies that citizens should file information requests via the Internet, Pavlov said.

The law would require places such as libraries and schools to provide Internet access for citizens, Komissarov said.

Pavlov called this requirement a minor hurdle, since almost all Russian schools now have Internet access. The Internet is "a very effective way to see what governments are doing 24 hours a day," he said.

The law falls short of requiring state institutions to publish information on their web sites. Instead, a clause says they "can" publish information. "I think this is the main mistake in this draft of the law," Pavlov said. "But it's not critical."