This is Part Two in a blog post series to highlight interesting and impactful requests that have been made through the 25 websites running our Alaveteli FOI software across the world. You can see Part One here.
This time, we’re highlighting four interesting stories, from Hungary’s Alaveteli site KiMitTud and the pan-European site AsktheEU.
The European Commission really doesn’t want us to know about their correspondence with tobacco lobbyists
Last year, the research and campaigning group Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) sent a request for documents relating to all correspondence/meetings between DG Trade officials and tobacco lobbyists from January 2014 to March 2015 on AsktheEU.org.
Following this, the European Commission ‘released’ very heavily redacted documents concerning their contacts with the tobacco industry on EU trade negotiations, including the ongoing EU-Japan and EU-US trade talks (TTIP).
In all four documents (correspondence with and minutes of meetings with tobacco lobbyists) virtually all the content is blacked out, including the names of all tobacco lobbyists and Commission officials involved. Only around 5% of the text is visible.
As CEO points out, the Commission’s secrecy around its relations with tobacco industry lobbyists and its international trade negotiations causes great concern and highlights the lack of transparency within the Commission.
To read the full story, see this article on CEO’s website.
Hungarian police break data protection law
Following an argument with his girlfriend, Kristof Marton, a resident of Szeged in Southern Hungary, was convicted of harassment and sentenced to 60 days of community labour.
He later discovered from several sources that unauthorised members of the Szeged police force had been going through the details of his case and discussing his personal affairs, going against Hungarian data protection law.
As a result, he submitted an enquiry on Hungarian Alaveteli site KiMiTud to determine who had access to his case files and the reasons they were allowed to handle his records.
In response to his FOI request, the Szeged police department informed him that 67 officers and public servants had viewed his case details. Only 14 people were on the investigation team into his case, so why were 53 more people looking at his personal records?
From the information released, Marton spotted several anomalies. One officer claimed they were viewing the records to clarify forensic details, despite no on-site forensic survey ever being carried out. Another had accessed the files from the wrong police department, as the investigation had been transferred to another precinct.
This led Marton, with support from the Hungarian data protection ombudsman, to request information from the national police department (ORFK) on the specificities of his case as well as on how police handle data protection nationally. ORFK refused to disclose this information, but the courts disagreed. The court ruled that ORFK have to compile a database containing information held on record about some 37,000 people – displaying the true extent of police departments’ inconsistencies towards data protection.
You can read the full article on Atlatszo’s website here.
Feasibility study is total waste of taxpayer’s money
Using Hungarian site KiMiTud, Babett Oroszi requested the feasibility study on the planned building of a new stadium for Ferencvaros Football Club in March 2013. This study cost 24 million Hungarian forints (around £60,000) of public funds to commission.
The Prime Minister’s Bureau shared the document in their response to Babett’s FOI request. It was a 49-page ‘expert opinion’, through the publication of which it soon became apparent that the actual content had been plagiarised from a variety of texts available online.
Babett’s full write-up of the request (in Hungarian) is here.
European Commission lobby meetings revealed, showing 90% are with corporate sector
At the end of 2014, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker introduced a transparency initiative that publishes the meetings of Commissioners, their cabinets and directors-general with lobbyists online.
However, according to research group Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO), these disclosures only cover around 250 top Commission officials, a small minority of the estimated 6000 officials directly involved in policy-making.
To find out how many, and what, lobby meetings were taking place with Commission officials that are not covered by Juncker’s transparency initiative, the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Regulation (ALTER-EU) used AsktheEU.org to submit FOI requests to five Commission departments, asking for lists of meetings that mid-level Commission officials have had with lobbyists between December 2014 and July 2015.
Only one of the five Commission departments responded – the Directorate-General for Financial Stability, Financial Services and Capital Markets Union (DG FISMA).
The information they released shows that DG FISMA held 445 meetings with lobbyists in the period between December 2014 and July 2015, an average of more than 55 per month. None of these meetings were disclosed as part of Juncker’s transparency initiative.
The information also revealed that well over 90 per cent of DG FISMA’s meetings with lobbyists were with the corporate sector and less than 4 per cent were with NGOs.
As CEO explains:
‘This extreme imbalance is in stark contrast with Juncker’s political guidelines for the Commission, in which he states that: “While contact with stakeholders is a natural and important part of the work of a Member of the Commission, all such contacts should be conducted with transparency and Members of the Commission should seek to ensure an appropriate balance and representativeness in the stakeholders they meet.”’
Furthermore, the DG FISMA’s response reveals that 20.4% of the meetings were attended by lobbyists representing companies or organisations that were not in the EU’s lobby transparency register at the time of the meeting. This shows the willingness of EU officials to meet with unregistered banks, companies and lobby groups, and a disregard for the transparency register.
You can read further details about this in Corporate Europe Observatory’s article here.
As these FOI stories show, FOI laws around the world can, and should, be used by a wide range of different people – from investigative journalists and NGOs tackling institutional corruption and promoting transparency, to individual citizens concerned about the abuse of their rights. FOI is for everyone.
And by using Alaveteli sites, we hope those requestors found the process as easy as possible, and are proud that the information they requested (which may have never surfaced otherwise) is now is open for everyone to see.
These requests also highlight that even getting heavily redacted information back from authorities, or no response at all, can still be revealing or useful for transparency campaigning and holding authorities to account, as authorities’ non-compliance is captured in public.
If you know of any interesting requests made on Alaveteli sites (or other online FOI portals) that you’d like featured in this blog post series, then please do get in touch.
This was part two in the ‘Stories of Alaveteli’ series. See part three here.
Image: The Commission’s 14-page letter from British American Tobacco on trade talks. Full pdf here.