Practice of classifying documents as for 'internal use only' continues

Documents (photo is illustrative).
Documents (photo is illustrative). Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

While everyone should have access to public data, according to the spirit of the law, agencies in Estonia still classify a staggering number of documents by slapping the "internal use only" stamp on them.

A public sector document can be classified as for internal use only in certain cases. For example, if it includes sensitive personal information or if its publication could violate someone's right to privacy and inviolability of private life.

While attention is periodically drawn to the problem of officials taking the opportunity too often, the practice has rather become more widespread.

The recent example comes from this week when the Ministry of Finance classified Minister of Finance Mart Võrklaev's letter to the Ministry of Culture where he strongly suggest taking the money necessary for finishing the reconstruction of the National Library from the budget of the Cultural Endowment of Estonia.

Access to the document was granted after an ERR journalist took interest, and a ministry spokesperson admitted that there were no grounds to classify the letter.

"The address was classified as a budgetary document, while a closer look revealed that it did not include sensitive information," they said.

This is no isolated incident.

For example, the Ministry of Justice refused to release an analysis on the voting rights of Russian citizens in Estonia to ERR last week, pointing once again to its internal use only designation. This despite the fact that a bill and explanatory memorandum to strip Russian citizens in Estonia of their right to vote in local elections had been made public by Minister of Justice Kalle Laanet himself.

Asked why the ministry decided to classify the analysis, ERR was told the document was not yet final and had not been signed by the minister and approved by the cabinet.

Katrin Haug, PR adviser for the Estonian Data Protection Inspectorate, said that analyses and studies commissioned or carried out by public institutions cannot be classified as for internal use only. However, the law does allow classifying draft documents and annexes if they have not been signed or approved yet.

"The aim of these provisions is to make it possible to classify documents that are still in the works so they wouldn't be interpreted as final decisions," she explained.

Haug said the inspectorate does not have enough information to make a final judgment in this particular case.

ERR has written about ill-considered use of the "internal use only" stamp before. For example, then Minister of Justice Maris Lauri said in the fall of 2021 that documents classified without good reason need to be disclosed post haste to comply with the law. She emphasized that the internal use designation needs a concrete reason and classification, even if it is involuntary, needs to end.

Rein Lang, former justice minister and head of a working group on public information policy, also found back then that too much information is classified and the Public Information Act is de facto not complied with. Lang suggested that the number of internal use only documents should be drastically slashed, which process should be spearheaded by the Data Protection Inspectorate, even though it currently lacks the resources.

State Secretary Taimar Peterkop said in January that the everyday application of the law has become removed from its spirit according to which everyone needs to have access to public information.

Chancellor of Justice Ülle Madise has also pointed out that the Public Information Act that prescribes free access to public information is the rule and any designation for "internal use only" must be the exception.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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