Opinion | Danes say “no, thank you” to restricted freedom of information

Jesper Tynell, Oluf Jørgensen, Pernille Boye Koch and Lars Rugaard are a few of the impressive list of academics, politicians and award-winning journalists who tenaciously oppose the new freedom of information act, offentlighedsloven, presented by the government. Their biggest and most valid arguments have been that the new law, especially sections 24 and 27, would create a political vacuum where no one, journalists or otherwise, could control whether public officials and politicians were doing their job well enough, telling the truth, withholding vital information or abusing their power.

The main theme in the new freedom of information act is the political argument based (so the government says) on the idea that officials need to be able to work with the government without being disturbed by the media. The argument, however, seems in conflict with existing laws that make it quite difficult to block access to vital and sensitive information and political decision-making processes. 

In an interview on primetime TV, the justice minister, Morten Bødskov, despite being asked 14 times,  was unable to give a single example of the media preventing anyone – be they officials or politicians – from attending to their work or misinterpreting sensitive information to the public. The only examples he could present were hypothetical situations. During the last two to three weeks the media protests against the new freedom of information act have become increasingly vocal.

But the proposal and negotiations over the proposed changes have been going on for more than three years, and time is almost up. The freedom of information act is, you could say, just a heartbeat away. It took a long time before these vociferous, and valid, protests got any kind of attention from the mainstream media, given the highly controversial nature of the changes. It should have caught the eye of every major media station far earlier, especially considering that the new freedom of information act undermines the work of every journalist in Denmark. It did seem, for a short period, as if the new freedom of information act would be passed and accepted without much notice. 

Then something else happened. A group of volunteers, online strangers, started working together on a Facebook page, created by Anders Højsted, and shortly after a petition against the new freedom of information act was initiated by Susanne Jespersen. None of the volunteers were journalists, lawyers or politicians; they came from various backgrounds and live in different areas of Denmark. They have never been in the same room together. The only thing they have in common is that they are concerned citizens who politely but strongly protest against the new freedom of information act, asking one single question over and over again: why democracy would ever need an act that could be used by officials and politicians to withhold vital information from the public. The sole purpose of their efforts is to inform about and the new freedom of information act, collect all available articles in one place for all to see, read and inspire everyone to sign up against the law.  

In less than four months the Facebook page got almost 8,000 likes, with the number of total Facebook users being exposed to its posts peaking at 180,000. The petition got more than 58,000 signatures in only 41 days. Both are still adding new names by the day and the petition has far outrun all other petitions on the website where it was posted. This has been done without spending one single krone on advertising or online visibility. 

Jespersen contacted a political representative from the opposition party Venstre to get an answer as to why he and his party would support the new freedom of information act, even though so many Danes had signed the petition against it. 

At that time the petition had received 5,000 signatures in less than a week. His response was that it was a simple internet petition and the protest was seen by him and his party as a tempest in a teacup. Three weeks later the petition had 50,000 signatures and has been mentioned by all Danish mainstream media organisations. To most people that would be more than just a storm in a teacup. To most people this would be considered an accomplishment and a strong statement, clearly showing that politicians, journalists and lawyers aren’t the only ones who can understand how a serious a problem it is that the government is seeking to pass a law they can use to hide behind. 

The author is a civil rights advocate and one of the co-founders of the 'Nej tak til den nye offentlighedslov' initiative.