SPJ Reading Room
Using litigation to promote implementation
An inspiration to many new democracies, Bulgaria passes freedom of information laws ensuring everyone the right to know. Now, organizations work to further open access reform and government accountability.
By Katie O'Keefe, Pulliam/Kilgore Intern
The need for open access in Bulgaria reached an intensity of nuclear proportions nearly 20 years ago.
On April 26, 1986, a reactor blew at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in northern Ukraine, creating the largest nuclear disaster the world has ever experienced. The explosion contained almost 200 times more radioactivity than both the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atom bombs combined, according to the Public Broadcasting Service. It sent 50 tons of radioactive dust into the atmosphere, spreading across an area of about 140,000 square miles. Scientists found traces of this radioactivity all throughout the northern hemisphere - including in the United States.
Yet, merely 630 miles away in Bulgaria, officials told citizens not to panic - that no pollution had penetrated the country. The public had to rely on foreign news sources to gain any insight to events leading up to and following the explosion.
Four years after the explosion, after the fall of communism, the Bulgarian government's lies and secrecy sparked a public outcry for information access. Today, this protest, along with the help of pro-freedom of information organizations, has made Bulgaria a leader in establishing open access legislation. Although Bulgaria still struggles to fully implement new legislation, its progress in creating open access laws serves as an inspiration to similar countries striving to break free from authoritarian pasts and form accountable, democratic governments.
Steps toward open access
In 1991, the Bulgarian government passed the Environmental Protections Act, granting the public the right to access information regarding all kinds of pollution and toxins. Having waited years to learn the truth, the public soon discovered the real consequences of Chernobyl - the existence of increased levels of radioactive poisons in the environment.
But the EPA was merely Part 1 of the effort to increase government transparency in 1991. That same year, the country adopted a new constitution that states in Article 41, Section 1, "Everyone shall be entitled to seek, receive and impart information." This had the potential to be an effective statement forwarding freedom of information. Unfortunately, Section 2 of the article significantly weakened its impact, declaring "citizens shall be entitled to obtain information ... on any matter of legitimate interest."
The words "legitimate interest" carried with them years of confusion, ambiguity and a defense for the government's noncompliance with the law.
In 1996, Bulgarian President Zhelyu Zhelev requested an interpretation of Article 41 from the Constitutional Court, which eventually ruled it unnecessary for citizens to prove special interest to obtain information. Unfortunately, this ruling not only was unpopular with the government, but few citizens understood the implications of the ruling or how to use it to their advantage.
In response to the slow implementation of freedom of information laws, 11 individuals founded the Access to Information Programme, an organization to give citizens and journalists an ally in combating noncompliance with Article 41.
Since its establishment in 1996, AIP has helped the people of Bulgaria break free from the mindset instilled from nearly a half-century of communism. During its first few years of existence, AIP led seminars, public discussions and workshops aimed at bringing more attention to the need for freedom of information legislation and educating the public of how to use such laws to its advantage.
Then, at the turn of the millennium, the fight for open access legislation reached a milestone. With the help of AIP-initiated public debate, the government passed the Access to Public Information Act of 2000. This act grants everyone (citizens, foreign citizens, individuals with no citizenship and legal entities) the right to access "public information" without having to prove a legitimate interest.
Before the act in 1999, public knowledge of freedom of information was merely 5 percent. After its implementation, and with AIP support, awareness grew to 19 percent in 2002 with people filing 32,857 FOI requests that year, according to an AIP report. As a result, journalists began to use the act to their benefit.
"In the beginning journalists were skeptical," said Gergana Jouleva, co-founder and executive director of AIP. "But over the last two years, they started to use (the law) for investigations."
However, the act is far from perfect. Although it grants access to public information, the act does not clearly define what constitutes public information. Also, it does not specifically state what documents are "protected interest," exempt from disclosure, which leads to hundreds of denials. While many of these denials might be frivolous, there is no method of administrative review to ensure government bodies abide by the law.
One of the largest impacts AIP has had to help forward reform of the Access to Public Information Act is providing legal aid. Since 2001, AIP has provided legal representation in more than 80 court cases involving freedom of information - including everything from the right to be present at public meetings to gaining access to government bodies' information. Last year, the organization reported receiving 717 requests for legal assistance. AIP publishes many of these cases in its monthly FOI Newsletter in order to track progress and bring the issue of information access to the public's attention. Currently, the newsletter goes out to more than 607 clients, including media outlets, judges, public institutions and lawyers.
"FOI litigation is also important for the confidence of the people to go to courts. Even the court has improved under the implementation of the FOI law," Jouleva said, clarifying that the Supreme Administrative Court, which rules on all FOIA cases, has begun publishing all of its documents on its Web site.
'Right to Know Day'
Over the past few years, a growing number of nongovernmental organizations from other countries have begun to share AIP's dedication to improve open access laws. As a result, Sept. 28, 2002, AIP sponsored a meeting that organizations from around the world attended at in Sofia, Bulgaria. These institutions collaborated to form the Freedom of Information Advocates Network. As its first course of action, the network designated Sept. 28 "Right to Know Day" - a day for groups around the world to organize activities promoting open government.
To celebrate the day in Bulgaria, AIP has sponsored the annual "Golden Key" awards since 2003. AIP presents Golden Key awards to the Bulgarian institutions that best supplied the public with factual information over the year. Subsequently, a Golden Padlock is given to the institutions that failed to comply with the Access to Public Information Act and most violated the public's right to access information. In 2004, AIP gave the Golden Padlock anti-award to the National Agricultural Fund for not answering a single FOI request since the act became law four years prior, according to the Right to Know Day Web site.
For its extreme involvement in forwarding the implementation of Article 41, this year AIP won first place, a $10,000 prize, in the Templeton Freedom Award for Ethics and Values - an international contest for nongovernmental organizations working to strengthen free enterprise. The Atlas Economic Research Foundation presented AIP with the $10,000 prize along with a $10,000 TFA Grant to help further its mission to open the Bulgarian government.
Today, AIP continues to provide legal aid and FOI educational programs with the hopes that one day both Bulgarian citizens and government bodies can participate in a true, open democracy.
Right to Know Day