Today is International Right to Know Day! 2016 is also the 250th anniversary of Freedom of Information and we’ve been marking these two facts all week with insights from journalists who have used FOI in their work.
We began by asking Katalin to tell us about a memorable story that had been written with the aid of FOI.
The Museum of the Fine Arts in Budapest lent 10 antique paintings to a company tied to the PM’s personal advisor Arpad Habony.
The value of the paintings was HUF 400 million (~ GB £1.06 million) but the company paid only HUF 150,000 (~ GB £400) per month for them, and they hadn’t insured the paintings either.
We filed a lawsuit because the museum refused my request to publish information on where the paintings were.
After a year and a half in court we won the case, and the museum had to publish the information that during the whole lending period the paintings were in a private apartment where the PM’s advisor is a frequent visitor.
After my article was published the Minister of Culture issued a written notice to the director of the museum because he hadn’t asked for his permission for the loan. The director of the museum later admitted he was on friendly terms with the PM’s advisor. He was the best man at Habony’s wedding which was held at the museum. Habony wasn’t charged any rental fees.
What’s the significance of FOI in your opinion?
Freedom of Information is important because citizens have the right to know what, why, how and at what costs are things happening in the country where they live and work.
The state spends their taxes, therefore it is right to expect it to operate in a transparent way. And if someone knows they can be checked up on at any time, they will pay attention to what they do.
The right to information is a foundation of democracy, a check on power, and it pays an important role in fighting illegal activities and corruption.
What has Freedom of Information meant to you, as a journalist?
FOI is very important for investigative journalism.
If contracts of public spending weren’t open to public, many corruption cases would never be revealed. The Hungarian government has amended the FOI law several times in the past few years, and always in the negative direction.
Each time they limit the data that falls under the scope of the FOI Act, so that they can keep dubious affairs secret. This causes the risk of corruption to rise even higher, and our work has become even more challenging.
When the right to information is wide, and public spending is transparent, it’s much easier to notice suspicious cases.
Do you consider FOI to be a vital tool for the future?
It’s very important to apply FOI in as many places and as widely as possible. If there’s no FOI, there’s no democracy.
If we let political interests become more important than FOI we will end up in a dictatorship. The task and interest of the non-governmental organisations is to check on power, and this is only possible with freedom of information.
We have to stand up for it everywhere, every time.
Read the next installment to learn how a journalist in Croatia has used FOI.
If you’re a journalist yourself, you might be interested in our latest project.
But don’t forget, FOI isn’t just for journalists: anyone can make their own requests for information at WhatDoTheyKnow.com.
Image: KovacsDaniel CC BY-SA 3.0