Ministries in Estonia have made several proposals to amend the Public Information Act aimed at restricting public access to information and adding new ways to keep official documents from those interested in reading them. Martin Šmutov, editor-in-chief of Estonian daily Õhtuleht, said that while the 2001 Public Information Act was a brilliant piece of legislation, efforts have been made to dismantle it since.
ERR has written about this tendency toward excessive classification many times over the years. The law provides that equal access to information meant for public use should be ensured. Chancellor of Justice Ülle Madise has said that public availability of public information should be the rule and classifying it as for internal use only the exception.
Auditor General Janar Holm also mentioned the trend of classification in his annual report to the parliament Wednesday, saying that even MPs have been denied access to contracts and documents for less than clearly articulated reasons, and that journalists' requests for information often yield irrelevant material.
"More than a few agencies and officials seem to find it a safer bet not to divulge information as it seems the riskier option. But being afraid to release information can lead to serious consequences at critical junctions," the auditor general said, referring to the classification of some documents as absurd.
While the Ministry of Justice in October sent a letter to other ministries and the Government Office, saying it wants to map out the need to amend the Public Information Act, the replies it has received betray reluctance to boost transparency, with ministries recommending tightening the screws further.
For example, the Ministry of Defense wants the option of classifying documents as for internal use only for longer than the current time limit of a decade, pointing to the need to protect information systems, databases, security systems, in-house rules and procedures.
"Public interest does not always outweigh possible damage done to the information holder's performance of tasks, resilience and national security in general," Asko Kivinuk wrote in the Defense Ministry's reply.
Krista Aas, undersecretary for assets of the Ministry of the Interior, finds that access to registers and open data should require personalization in the future. This would make it possible to see who has accessed information.
She also pointed to the need to deny access to so-called serial requesters and said that while restricting access to certain kinds of data can make sense from the data protection perspective, it is often difficult or even impossible to find grounds for it in the Public Information Act.
The Interior Ministry also wants the opportunity to extend the classification period for as long as the reason for classification persists.+
Ministry of Climate wants to make a part of information requests paid
Secretary General of the Ministry of Climate Keit Kasemets said that information collected in misdemeanor or supervision proceedings could be subject to restricted access in some cases, and that only decisions entered into force could be a matter of public record for misdemeanors.
Kasemets also pointed to the problem of people who have made it a habit to request information about everything, including cases that have nothing to do with their person.
"While an agency can deny a request for masses of information today, it could also be possible to charge a fee for granting access to a lot of information at once," he suggested.
Merike Saks, secretary general for the Ministry of Finance, said that access could also be restricted to European Commission and Council working group documents, while administrative judicial proceedings make for another such area.
She also said that it is currently complicated to only disclose that part of documents which does not include information designated for internal use only, and that individual sentences taken out of context do not really benefit the person accessing the information anyway.
The Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs would also like the opportunity to classify documents for longer than ten years, with the latter proposing a period of 30 years for diplomatic communication.
The Ministry of Education and Research would like the possibility to designate information as for internal use only during judicial proceedings should the need arise. The ministry would like to classify information that could damage national interests until a ruling is made.
State secretary: Unreasonable limitations should be blocked
But State Secretary Taimar Peterkop disagrees. He has pointed out in the past how the way the Public Information Act is being used has drifted away from the spirit of the law.
Peterkop told the Justice Ministry that because the law leaves agencies a lot of leeway in terms of how to disclose data, a lot of information is published in a way that requires too much effort to access.
"When it comes to the bases for access restrictions, we believe amendments should be aimed at ruling out misinterpretation, which has led to unjustified access restrictions on information that should be public. Furthermore, it is important to evaluate after 20 years of practical experience whether the existing grounds for access restrictions should be amended or complemented to avoid introducing access restrictions for the wrong reasons.
Šmutov: Public Information Act has been gradually dismantled
Martin Šmutov, editor-in-chief of Õhtuleht told ERR that Estonia created one of the best public information laws in Europe back in 2001.
"The law has been gradually dismantled since and its spirit has changed in the process. While the law used to make it possible to find out what is happening in the country and why, it is now used for justifying attempts to withhold information. Open administration has become covert administration. That is why I'm less than surprised by the desire to ramp up this frankly pathological concealment [of information]."
Šmutov said that Estonians do not know the names of people who participated in deportations because access to court decisions older than ten years was restricted in 2016. Had the Ministry of Justice gotten its way in 2018, we also would not know who is on trial, nor what the courts decide.
"In 2020, there was an attempt to amend the regulation governing the courts' information system the idea behind and need for which even the courts themselves failed to grasp," Šmutov said.
The journalist also recalled a proposal by the Consumer Protection and Technical Regulatory Board (TTJA) to create a so-called truth board that would have been in charge of decisions of whether material published in the media is truthful and balanced.
"To put it bluntly – they wanted a body that would define truth and punish those who deviate from the official line," Šmutov said. "Time and again, I'm left to repeat the question asked by my good colleague Tarmo Vahter in his brilliant opinion piece (link in Estonian) from 2018: 'Who the hell is working on an Estonia where no one is allowed to know anything?' We are trying to answer this question as best we can and have learned a few more names now, which has delivered a temporary setback to efforts to introduce new limitations."
Šmutov said that Estonia keeps waiting for a prime minister or even state secretary to come along and reverse this trend and make sure punishments are in store for those who hide documents behind classified status without legal grounds.
"We keep waiting and hoping, while until that time we will try to defend an open country where people can find out what politicians are planning, what kind of amendments they're proposing and what kind of deals they're cutting in back rooms, where public funds are being squandered and who was responsible for deportations," the editor-in-chief of Õhtuleht said.
Editor: Marcus Turovski