Friday, September 03, 2010

Kazakhstan: Officials to find it harder to hide behind confidentiality or ignorance of the law

This article originally appeared in Institute for War and Peace Reporting,

New legislation under discussion in Kazakstan could make it easier for members of the public to access information held by government and make the system more transparent.

Public hearings on the public information bill took place throughout August in various regions of Kazakstan. A conference at the end of September will summarise the recommendations collected, and submit them to the Ministry of Communications and Information as input to the bill. A finalised draft should go before parliament next year.

The driving force behind the information bill, as well as the innovative idea of asking members of the public what they thought about it, was the United Nations Development Programme, UNDP, office in Kazakstan. Locally-based media development and civil society groups including IWPR were closely involved in discussions that shaped the initial draft.

The need for such a bill is recognised by central government as well as NGOs. In an address to the nation earlier this year, President Nursultan Nazarbaev called for public bodies to be made more transparent and accountable.

The various institutions of state in Kazakstan typically shy away from discussing their work openly and responding to questions about their accountability. Faced with what seems like a brick wall, the average citizen is reluctant to fight for access to information that should be freely available.

Recommendations for the legislation are likely to include reducing the deadline by which government agencies are required to produce information, setting out a clear definition of confidentiality so that material cannot be withheld on spurious grounds, and ensuring that requests for information made verbally are recorded and tracked just like written submissions.

In addition, other laws will need to be changed if they go against the principles of transparency or basic rights set out in the Kazak constitution. At the moment, officials are able to cite various pieces of legislation that obstruct the right to information.

Gulmira Kujukeeva, a lawyer with the media development organisation Internews-Kazakstan, told IWPR there was currently no single legal text covering all aspects of access to information, but instead a multiplicity of laws, decrees and directives.

“Access to information has always been an acute problem for citizens in general and journalists in particular,” Kujukeeva said.

When officials were asked to provide information, she said, they might refuse outright to do so, offer only an incomplete response, argue that the information was confidential or simply not available, or plead that they lacked the authority and mandate to reply to the request.

This created an atmosphere in which ordinary people felt powerless to do anything, she said. Those who did challenge refusals might have to wait months with no guarantee of success. Only two out of ten legal challenges launched by journalists in recent years had been upheld, for example.

Almaty-based lawyer Igor Loskutov said confidentiality was often misused as a reason for withholding information.

“For example, it’s impossible to get hold of a presidential decree concerning the acquisition or loss of [Kazakstan] citizenship,” he said, noting that there was nothing secret about documents of this kind.

Loskutov argued that the information law could prove a powerful tool for stimulating greater public scrutiny of the use of public money – as long as steps were taken to ensure the legislation was followed, and punish offending institutions.

Commentators agree that Kazakstan cannot afford to fall behind the global trend for greater demand for freedom of information, coupled with the technological advances that make that possible.

As Kujyukeeva pointed out, “Even if journalists are forbidden to carry certain information in the newspapers or on TV and radio, anyone who wants to read such material can do so from alternative sources including the internet.”

Aliya Duganova, manager of the UNDP project that helped shape the bill and the accompanying consultations, said the general principle nowadays was that people should have the right to obtain and disseminate public-domain information without having to explain why they needed it.

In sum, she said, “I believe approval of this bill will increase the amount of information reaching people through print media and the internet. The new law will have an effect on public awareness, on access to information, and on the human rights situation in Kazakstan generally”.

Yaroslava Naumenko is an IWPR-trained journalist in Kazakstan.

This article was produced jointly under two IWPR projects: Building Central Asian Human Rights Protection & Education Through the Media, funded by the European Commission; and the Human Rights Reporting, Confidence Building and Conflict Information Programme, funded by the Foreign Ministry of Norway.

The contents of this article are the sole responsibility of IWPR and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of either the European Union or the Foreign Ministry of Norway.