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Researcher: Information Act should be renewed to benefit Estonian democracy

Documents.
Documents. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

Voters and researchers need government data to make informed decisions and carry out thorough research. Kaide Tammel, a researcher at the Estonian Academy of Security Sciences, says the Public Information Act was meant to prevent unwarranted restrictions of public information, but the act has been amended so many times in recent decades that it now itself restricts freedom of information.

In a recent reflection paper, Tammel discusses the possible reasons for this trend. She suggests that the law needs a thorough overhaul. "The principle of a democratic state is that power is exercised by the people. If people do not have access to the information they need to make a decision, or if that information is distorted, the question arises as to what the election will decide," the researcher said. Similarly, researchers need unbiased data that reflect the current situation in order to create new knowledge.

Tammel said there is nothing new about the institutions' desire to restrict access to data. "If you look at the debates that took place in 1998 when the Freedom of Information Act was being drafted, the situation is very similar to today," she said. Institutions are keen to keep information in-house, and the idea of sharing information for a fee has been bandied about both decades ago and today.

The researcher said the Public Information Act was drafted under the auspices of the freedom of information act working group. "If you look at the controversy in the early days, there were a lot of things that the authorities wanted to keep secret. So the goal of this law should be to ensure freedom of information," Tammel said.

The "For Internal Use Only" stamp has become a tool for secrecy. "Over the years, provisions have been added to the law to allow the stamp to be used in more and more cases," the researcher said.

Science is left in the dark

The secrecy has also been felt by researchers, who either lose access to the data or are prohibited from publishing the resulting study. "We have examples of researchers who have had to postpone writing their paper for a very long time, or who have had to change their methodology," Tammel said.

In a paper published by the Estonian Military Academy, Tammel details the reasons for the Estonian government's increasing use of classified stamp.

"It's easier to work when no one is bothering you, your back is covered, and no one is asking you uncomfortable questions," Tammel said. "This is completely understandable from a human point of view," she said. Some of the reasons for classification are related to fears that the results of the study could damage the institution's reputation.

Tammel said officials also fear proceedings related to internal information leaks, and are often reluctant to spend time on so-called non-work activities.

In fact, Tammel said, public officials also have a responsibility to be public in their activities. "Politicians and civil servants have to be able to justify their decisions. Communicating with journalists and academics alike is part of the job of a public servant," he said.

Tammel said that the question of the obligation to communicate openly with the public is primarily a question of awareness. That is why the Data Protection Inspectorate (which also deals with appeals against refusals of information) has often proposed a solution in its yearbooks: more awareness and training for officials.

"But why have these trainings had no real impact? Rather, the process has been moving toward greater secrecy for years," the researcher said.

Digital data needs fresh law

Tammel said that instead of informing officials, we should go back to the beginning and review the starting points of the Public Information Act. "In my opinion, it is not possible to improve the current Public Information Act by simply changing a few paragraphs. In fact, we need to do a major overhaul of the law," she says.

First, the nature of information and data has changed dramatically in the intervening years as it has moved into the digital age. "We need to look at what form and what kind of data we have in the agencies. How and with what technical means can we ensure freedom of information in today's society?" she said.

Second, over time, the Freedom of Information Act has been amended to include provisions resulting from the implementation of a number of EU directives. Tammel said that the language of the law has become very confusing as a result.

"For example, as I pointed out in the article, accessibility and usability are two different things. They are used systematically. In the same way, information, data, information, and metrics are used interchangeably," he said.

Freedom of information for the sake of a healthy democracy

Tammel said that the availability of public data is a question of the health of Estonia's governance and democracy. As a current reflection, Estonia is one of the role models for Ukraine's European aspirations. "How is it possible to eradicate corruption, which is still widespread in the public sector, if public decisions, activities and funding are not made public?"

This, the researcher said, raises the broader question of how it is possible to maintain, build and create democracies if the state is not transparent. Tammel stressed that the state should not be seen as a neutral party that always supports the people. "History, and unfortunately also today, shows us that if the state is not transparent and if it is not monitored by academics, the press and the third sector, then at some point the state as such can start to put people at risk," he said.

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Editor: Kristina Kersa

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