Opposition builds to new freedom of information law

Three parties raise concern that the new freedom of information law would limit access to government documents that can reveal corruption and abuse of power

Opposition is building to the new information access law, offentlighedslov, that was agreed upon this week between the government and opposition parties Konservative and Venstre.

The new law will place limitations on what government documentation the press and general public are entitled to access through freedom of information requests.

Despite the consensus between the five parties that negotiated the changes, the three remaining parties – Liberal Alliance (LA), Dansk Folkeparti (DF) and Enhedslisten (EL) – are demanding that the new law be subject to a proper debate before it is presented in parliament in February.

“The government parties have made a U-turn and now apparently have no problem hiding ministerial work when they themselves are in power,” Pernille Skipper, EL's legal spokesperson, told public broadcaster DR. “It is embarrassing, and it is all the more embarrassing because they have not bothered to have an open debate and negotiate with all the parties in parliament.”

The new offentlighedslov will limit access to the calendars of ministers and civil servants as well as documentation passed between ministries and government officials that were used to make decisions.

Simon Emil Ammitzbøll, a spokesperson for LA, added that the new limitations would allow the government and civil servants to better cover up cases of corruption and the abuse of power.

“In a democracy, it is fundamentally necessary that the general population has the opportunity to know what the people in power are getting up to, and that will be limited with this deal,” Ammitzbøll told DR. “It is doubtful that some of the most important recent journalistic exposures would have been possible with the new law.”

Information newspaper compiled a list of some of the scandals of the past twelve months that would never have been exposed under the new offentlighedslov.

Among them was the ‘taxgate’ scandal involving PM Helle Thorning-Schmidt (Socialdemokraterne) and her husband, Steven Kinnock.

The scandal started after Politiken newspaper revealed last November that in 2010 Peter Loft, a department head in the Tax Ministry, had held five meetings with the head of the Copenhagen offices of the tax agency, Skat.

In one of the meetings, it was alleged that Loft urged Skat to investigate claims that Kinnock owed Danish tax.

The revelation was made after Politiken was granted access to the calendars of top civil servants in Skat and was significant because it demonstrated that the Tax Ministry had illegally tried to interfere in a specific case.

Information alleges that a scandal like this would not be exposed under the new offentlighedslov because the calendars of top civil servants would be exempt from freedom of information requests.

That was confirmed by Oluf Jørgensen, the head of media law research at Danmarks Medie og Journalisthøjskole and an expert in information access laws.

“It’s thought-provoking that a new exception is being added to information access law that, if it had been applied earlier, would have prevented the exposure of a very important case of abuse of power,” Jørgensen told Information.

The updated law was not roundly condemned, however, and many aspects have been praised for catching up with the times by allowing, for example, freedom of information requests to be submitted online.

Proponents of the controversial aspects of the new law argue that limiting insight into documentation passed between civil servants and ministries will allow for a more free exchange of ideas before final decisions are made and reduce the fear that nascent ideas are seized by the media through freedom of information requests.

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