Journalists Attack Hypocrisy of Politicians Who "Talk Transparency, but Act Secretively"

The European Federation of Journalists, Europe's largest journalist's group, accused some European political leaders of hypocrisy by breaking promises to widen public access to information in the European Union.

Speaking to a European Parliament Seminar on Access to documents of the EU institutions EFJ General Secretary Aidan White said: "Too many people inside Europe's charmed circle of political power talk transparency but act secretively. This happens particularly when there is bad news on the agenda."

He said that during the last days of the Commission reign of Jacques Santer, as public disquiet about corruption and incompetence was rising, the instinct of political leaders and officials was to stifle debate, penalise informants and to find ways of undermining investigative journalism.

He said recent events had reinforced cynicism within journalism about the political commitment to reform.

In particular, actions during the summer when the Council of Ministers amended the 1993 code on access to documents on August 14th, an action the EFJ had earlier described as a "summertime coup." The action bypassed the Parliament and the Commission and showed contempt for the Amsterdam Treaty commitment to greater transparency and openness by using a "written procedure" to have the rules introduced without further debate.

"By any standards this action is both extraordinary and disgraceful," said White. "It challenges European Union commitments to open Government, it undermines agreed co-decision arrangements and it rides roughshod over rhetoric promising public involvement in the debate about the future of Europe.

"We understand that this intervention was orchestrated by NATO member states amidst concerns about common security policy. But we see no justification for it. Existing rules on access to documents and exceptions proposed under the draft Code put forward by the Commission are more than adequate to meet security needs."

The EFJ accused NATO of orchestrating the change of rules. The initiative came not from a member state but from the office of Javier Solana, who a year ago was appointed from NATO to be the Secretary-General of the Council and High Representative for common foreign and security policy in the European Union.

"We do not accept that efficient means to preserve international peace and security and to promote democracy require widespread secrecy, bureaucratic control of information and manipulation of the media," he said.

The EFJ said the Council of Ministers decision had to be overturned. "If the action by the Council is allowed to stand it will bring more secrecy into public life in Europe, not less. We strongly support efforts from within the Parliament to repeal the decision taken by the on August 14th."

The EFJ expressed support for Parliament attempts to amend a proposal for a Regulation of the Parliament and the Council on public access to institution documents.

"We very much welcome your commitment to widen access to documents and to establish a practical framework for access," said White "But this will not be achieved unless resources are made available to meet the administrative burden of providing access".

He said deadlines for release of documents should be shorter to meet journalistic needs and proper explanations should be given whenever and wherever exceptions are used to deny requested documents. Registers of documents held by each institution should be created and practical arrangements for public access to such registers should be put in place.

"I stress that we do not expect every note, e-mail message and brainstorming doodle to be part of the documentary material to which citizens should have access," said White, "But to define the limits of openness we must first decide what is secret and that must be done by clear and precise definition of information that is exempt. We must not introduce generalities that promote widespread bureaucratic forms of censorship."

He said the challenge to provide access to information in the European Union is the sharpest test of the European project. Many people, journalists among them, are still uncertain that political leaders mean what they say when it comes to open government.