Freedom of information act could damage Denmark’s reputation

More politicians join the protest against the government’s plans to ratify a new less-democratic freedom of information act

The government’s plan to adopt a new freedom of information act (offentlighedslov) that would reduce the public’s right to access governmental documents could compromise Denmark’s reputation internationally.

The transparency watchdog Transparency International Danmark (TI-DK) has argued that the new offentlighedslov could compromise Denmark’s favourable placement on international transparency rankings.

“A prospective ratification of the new offentlighedslov could negatively affect our position in international rankings. If the law is ratified as stands, too much will be left in the dark and it is TI-DK’s fear that our strong integrity system will suffer. Furthermore, the law will weaken the media’s role as the fourth estate and watchdog, which would be a very unfortunate consequence,” TI-DK wrote in a press release.

There are particular two central sections of the new law proposal, sections 24 and 27, that have concerned an increasing number of critics who argue that the law would only serve to strengthen the government at the expense of the public.

Yesterday, Mai-Britt Schultz, the regional head for Radikale on Funen, and her deputy stepped down in protest against the proposal, adding more pressure to the government to drop the law. Schultz was expected to be one of the party’s leading candidates in the local government elections in November.

Anders Højsted, a Radikale board member from the Nørrebro district in Copenhagen, has vehemently opposed the offentlighedslov and has strived to urge parliament members to reconsider the law.

“What will happen is that the Danish public will lose the ability to fact-check laws, and this is going to diminish people’s democratic commitment and spawn an apathetic view of politics,” Højsted told The Copenhagen Post. “The public will be less informed, the journalists will have a tougher time uncovering injustices and we’ll have a harder time figuring out who to vote for.”

Højsted contended that the new law did contain some improvements, but that it would ultimately weaken the democratic process in Denmark.

“They are creating transparency at the edge of the political sphere, but they are removing transparency at the centre, particularly from the political process, which is usually what motivates people to get politically active,” Højsted said.

There are numerous examples of journalists who have found documentation via freedom of information requests that have revealed politicians basing their arguments for political initiatives on false factual grounds, cooked figures or premeditated ‘oversights’.

Anders Højsted has been working hard to convince the politicians that the law is a poor idea (Photo: private photo)It was only recently that the tabloid Ekstra Bladet found that Employment Minister Mette Frederiksen (Socialdemokraterne) had been under-reporting the number of people who would fall out of the unemployment benefit scheme, kontanthjælp.

“A new law that reduces the public's ability to hold the government accountable … is something we consider to be a dramatic step backwards for Denmark,” Natascha Linn Felix, a TI-DK board member, said in a press release. “We are very worried about what is happening, but it is very encouraging to see the massive attention that the issue has finally obtained.”

But despite the surging opposition to the new act proposal, the justice minister, Morten Bødskov (Socialdemokraterne), continues to stick to the government’s decision to create a space of confidentiality for ministers.

Bødskov took part in the DR2 debate program 'Deadline 22.30', last night and defended the proposal, stating that it was acceptable that politicians are able to work in a space of confidentiality when they discuss proposals, ideas and other unfinished material.

However, when the programme's host, Martin Krasnik, repeatedly asked Bødskov to provide a specific example to illustrate his point that the offentlighedslov would be a benefit to the democratic process, the justice minister was unable to provide a clear answer.

The minister’s unconvincing performance in the debate programme was the latest inability of the government to adequately explain why the criticised changes to the law are needed. Last week, Jyllands-Posten newspaper contacted 20 current and former ministers and asked them why some ministerial communication should be kept in the dark. None of the ministers replied.

”When 20 ministers refuse to answer Jyllands-Posten’s question about which problems a lack of a private space has given them, it only goes to confirm suspicions that this law is primarily about protecting the government, current and future, against unpleasant cases,” Jyllands-Posten later wrote in an editorial.  “It looks more like a scandal for the Danish democracy.” 

Factfile | Sections 24 and 27

There are two particular sections of the offentlighedslov that have attracted criticism: sections 24 and 27.

Section 24: The right to access documents (aktindsigt) will not include internal documents and information which is exchanged at a time when there is a reason to assume that a minister has, or will have, a need for advice and assistance from a ministry’s department and it’s subordinate authorities or other ministries.

Section 27.2: The right to access documents (aktindsigt) does not extend to documents that are compiled and exchanged between ministers and MPs in connection with laws or other corresponding political processes.