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Freedom of information law limits access to public data in Hungary

The International Press Institute (IPI) and its affiliate, the South East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO), has expressed concern that a freedom of information law recently passed by Hungary's parliament limits government transparency and could increase the risk of corruption.

“We strongly urge Hungarian President János Áder not to sign this measure into law,” IPI Director of Communications & Public Relations Anthony Mills said. “By restricting access to important information that should be available to the public, such as how the Hungarian government is spending public money, it would jeopardise both the media's capacity to ensure that accurate information is delivered and its ability to act as a necessary check to ensure accountability.”

On June 11, Parliament approved the measure limiting access to certain forms of public data. The bill would restrict the amount of data citizens can access by allowing only state bodies to collect enough data to carry out large audits. It also places restrictions on access to large amounts of government data by individuals and non-governmental groups, such as media outlets.

The changes were initially introduced by Members of Parliament from the ruling Fidesz Party on April 30 and approved less than 48 hours later.
Áder initially vetoed the bill on May 8. Noting that it included a provision that only two government bodies – the State Audit Office and the Government Control Office – would have complete access to public data, he sent it back to Parliament saying: “It gives public service entities excessive right to decide what qualifies as 'abusive demand' of information”.

Parliament amended the bill to remove that provision before approving it earlier this month. Observers now expect Áder to sign the new version in the coming weeks.

The proposed changes to the freedom of information law came amid allegations that the government was favouring supporters of the ruling Fidesz party in the awarding of licences to sell tobacco, a charge the government has denied. The changes were proposed in Parliament one day after anti-corruption non-governmental organisation Transparency International said it would file a request for information on the tobacco licenses.

The government has similarly denied that the new law is a response to tobacco licensing inquiries. In an email to The Christian Science Monitor, government spokesperson Ferenc Kumin said that the government, “received the mandate from the Hungarian citizens to make these changes” which were necessary to eliminate “remains of the communist legacy”. He added that the aim of the amendment was “to increase the efficiency of providing data”.

Nevertheless, SEEMO Secretary General Oliver Vujovic said changes to freedom of information law represented “cause for concern”, commenting: “They will be one of the topics that representatives of IPI and SEEMO plan to address during an upcoming official visit to Hungary”.

IPI and SEEMO are scheduled to send a delegation to Budapest from July 1-2 as part of a fact-finding mission to examine the effects of changes to media law in Hungary in recent years that have drawn criticism from international observers.

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