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Who Protects Your Right to Access Information?

Access to Information ProgrammeIn 2001, the newly elected Bulgarian government set out to reform the customs administration and hired British consulting firm Crown Agents to facilitate the process. The first contract with Crown Agents was signed in 2001 behind closed doors and without a public tender. The second was concluded in 2004, also without tender. For eight years after the first agreement was concluded, the two contracts remained classified on the grounds that they contained information affecting national security. Questions about contractor selection, the fairness of the agreed terms, and the price borne by taxpayers were left unanswered.

It was not until 2009 that the Crown Agents contracts were declassified and posted on the website of the Ministry of Finance, and some answers became available. This was an important milestone in making state institutions more open to citizens—one achieved by the Access to Information Programme Foundation and its team.

The foundation’s lawyers worked on the cases suing for access to information in the Crown Agents contracts. After initially turning down their request for information, the Supreme Administrative Court reversed its stance and determined that the contracts did not contain state secrets, and no conclusive evidence of the need for classification had been presented. The cases also helped bring about legislative change. The following text was added to the Access to Public Information Act: "Access to official public information cannot be restricted in the case of prevailing public interest."

Access to Information Programme is a nongovernmental organization established in 1996 that provides legal assistance to citizens, journalists, nongovernmental organizations, and businesses in cases involving access to information. The organization’s lawyers have worked on more than 500 cases. With their help in 2004, journalists Petia Vladimirova, Vassil Chobanov, Elena Encheva, and Bogdana Lazarova won a case against the Supreme Judicial Council, which had denied them access to its sessions. The refusal was revoked by the court with the following words: "The right to information access is the norm, and the restriction of access—an exception." Now journalists have constant access to the Council's work.

Litigation is only part of the organization's activities. In partnership with journalists, it monitors practices and conducts information access studies across the country, organizes workshops and trainings, publishes handbooks on the right of access to information, and offers consultations to individuals. Many public institutions have become more transparent and open to citizens as a result of the organization’s efforts. Today, citizens have access to information from the meetings of ministries and municipal councils, public procurement documents, and much more. The organization contributed to the adoption of the Access to Public Information Act in 2000 and its subsequent amendments and helped secure free online access to the Commercial Register, the register of property owned by high government officials, and the archives of the communist-era State Security.

As a result of the foundation's work, state institutions are publishing more and more information. Access to Information Programme conducts an annual survey evaluating the websites of 567 administrative agencies. This involves sending requests for information access to each institution. In 2009, only 41% of the institutions responded to the requests. Nine years later, 87% of the institutions did so. When the Access to Public Information Act was adopted in 2000, just 3% of the population knew about it, compared to 39% in 2010.

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