It’s been a long time coming. On Feb. 19, the federal government agreed to scrap the country’s Amtsgeheimnis (Official Secrecy Laws), making Austria the last EU member state to do so. The ÖVP-Green coalition has also proposed a Freedom of Information Act.
The new package will give citizens the right to know what the government is doing and provide access to state information. Individuals will be able submit a request to a government agency in writing, orally, or by phone and to expect a response within four weeks, or up to eight weeks in particularly difficult cases. The provision sets a standard for civility, and anyone who submits an “abusive” inquiry should not expect an answer. Additionally, government agencies will be required to publish large areas of data publicly on a federal website (data.gv.at.).
However, the devil is in the details. For public contracts, only those over €100,000 are required to provide information. Other exceptions are still vague, and if too extensive, could make the proposals ineffective, and with long delays, even obsolete. For example, information will not be published if it could endanger national security or reveal others’ personal data.
On a ZIB II interview, Mathias Huter, transparency and anti-corruption activist and general secretary of the Forum Informationsfreiheit (Forum for Information Freedom), considers this provision critical. “When it comes to information about the work of the police or the armed forces, the national security argument cannot automatically come into play,” Huter said. “One must look at each case individually. Would it hurt if the information is released? And if so, then one must determine whether the public interest justifies this damage.” Huter also criticized the four-week deadline and argued institutions should be required to respond within two weeks, as is required by the EU.
The Freedom of International Act will allow the Rechnungshof (Court of Auditors) to look into private companies with a 25% ownership share instead of the current 50%. Moreover, the package also entails changes to the practices related to the Verfassungsgerichtshof (constitutional court). One is imposing a so-called “cooling-off phase” for government ministers and other officials, restricting them from becoming a judge within five years of leaving office. Currently, this only applies to the president and vice president, but the government will extend it to include a wide range of positions.
Another reform will enable judges to publish “dissenting opinions” on controversial decisions in the final verdict. Further, the draft legislation requires that the federal prosecutor be an “impeccable, technically experienced person,” not politically active, and able to withstand political pressure.
A transparency package of this kind has been on the political agenda for at least the past seven years. However, it never received the necessary two-thirds majority in parliament, for which the opposition has blamed the ÖVP, although Sebastian Kurz himself had championed such reforms. Last year, the turquoise-green coalition proposed the legislation in its 326-page program, and the Greens single-handedly initiated discussions in June, with Vice-Chancellor Werner Kogler calling for the package to be enacted by Jan. 1.
In July, Minister of the Constitution Karoline Edtstadler announced that the draft would be completed and passed on for review. But none of this ever happened, according to Der Standard editor Sebastian Fellner. Those responsible reportedly blaimed the pandemic or stalling negotiations, as the team had been busy in the fall finishing the Hass-im-Netz package. The discussions were restarted in December, but federal states and municipalities delayed the process even further.
On Monday, the coalition sent the completed draft to the appropriate branches of government for review, with eight weeks to submit their comments. Minister Edtstadler cited the government’s extensive work on the legislation, emphasizing all citizens’ right to state information.