Journalists worldwide slam freedom of information proposal

International Press Institute warns that other countries “would cynically use Denmark’s example to suppress democracy in their own countries”

The new freedom of information act (offentlighedslov) that the justice minister, Morten Bødskov (Socialdemokraterne), has submitted to parliament is coming under fire from journalists around the world.

The tightening of access to information that critics say will result from the law could inspire other countries to engage in what the International Press Institute (IPI) called “similar undemocratic procedures”. The European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) yesterday also distanced itself from the law.

Both groups have called on the government to drop the proposal. While IPI normally focuses on freedom of the press issues in countries like Ecuador, Belarus, Nigeria and Bangladesh, the group found the offentlighedslov proposal so troubling that it sent a warning directly to Bødskov and PM Helle Thorning-Schmidt (Socialdemokraterne).

"Shielding government officials and civil servants from the light of public scrutiny will, at best, increase voter apathy," IPI's executive director, Alison Bethel McKenzie, wrote in a letter to Bødskov and Thorning-Schmidt. "At worst, it will lead to public policy that harms Denmark’s citizens. Such a negative move could also provide cover for other world leaders who would cynically use Denmark’s example to suppress democracy in their own countries." 

“We urge you to heed the call of those who have spoken out against these measures, to demonstrate your commitment to democracy and to withdraw these sections from consideration,” Bethel McKenzie wrote.

The criticism directed at the proposed changes focuses on two paragraphs of the legislation: numbers 24 and 27. Both address the right to request access to government documents. Under the proposal, many documents described as 'political advisory' would not be available to reporters.

Paragraph 27 deals with documents and correspondence that are generated during the legislative process between the executive branch and parliament. These would also be excluded from information requests meaning that information about at least some of the workings of parliament would no longer be available to the public.

IPI spokesperson Steven Ellis said that Denmark’s reputation as an open society will be severely damaged if the proposal is adopted as it currently stands.

“Restrictions in Denmark will inspire other countries in Europe and beyond to do the same,” Ellis told Information newspaper. “Countries not interested in openness can now use Denmark as an excuse.”

Ellis said that it was “rare” to see a western democracy move to restrict the freedom of the press and that Denmark was no longer at the forefront when it came to transparency.

Bødskov called the criticisms “greatly exaggerated”.

"I think it is natural that journalists want maximum transparency,” he told Information. “But I must say that IPI’s claim that the offentlighedslov proposal in Denmark will trigger an oppressive domino effect around the world seems greatly exaggerated.”

Bødskov said that the proposal “builds on a long Danish tradition of an open and democratic governance".

Representatives of about 300,000 European journalists and media people met yesterday at the EFJ congress in Belgium and adopted a statement which clearly rejects the problematic sections in the proposed offentlighedslov.

“The EFJ calls on the Danish government to recognise that transparency is needed to develop democracy and withdraw the sections of the law that reclassify access to ministerial documents,” read the statement in part.

Several Danish journalists are already on record as saying that the new law would have prevented them from getting stories about the government.

Tim Knudsen, a professor of political science at the University of Copenhagen, recently said during an interview on public broadcaster DR, that the act, if passed, "would increase the risk for illegal activities, irregularities, and manipulations that will remain uncovered".

There is a protest against the offentlighedslov planned for 16:00 today outside of Christiansborg.