Where citizens struggle against corruption or ineffective public services, stronger democratic practices can help check how governments spend taxpayers' money and ensure policies improve people's lives.
Access to information – the right to seek, receive and impart information held by public bodies - is a fundamental human right, both as part of freedom of expression recognised by the UDHR. It is also a right recognised by many national constitutions. Access to Information ensures that all information held by governments and governmental institutions can be accessed, unless there are legitimate reasons (for example, privacy or security) for withholding it.
Access to information is therefore an important accountability mechanism - a democratic practice that can help hold governments to account.
Access to Information law in Kyrgyzstan
In Kyrgyzstan, Access to Information is a constitutional right, which is implemented by two laws: the "Law on Guarantees and Freedom of Access to Information" passed in 1997, and the more comprehensive “Law of the Kyrgyz Republic on Access to Information Held by State Bodies and Local State Government bodies” passed in 2006.
While these laws apply to a broad range of public authorities and situations, there are several weaknesses both in the law and in the way the law is implemented, resulting in a lack of access to information. This in turn creates barriers both for citizens and the media to understand and report on the actions of government, and has been identified by civil society representatives as an important area for legal reform.
Improving the law
As part of the Media Dialogue programme, funded by the EU, WFD supported local and international experts to assess the current legislation around access to information, and support development of a new, single draft law in line with international standards.
WFD’s support of the reform of access to information laws included carrying out a number of workshops with the working group responsible for developing the law.
For example, in April 2022, WFD held a workshop for Members of Parliament on amending the law on access to information. At the event, MPs discussed the importance of the right to information, and were introduced to the main draft law on the right to information and amendments to some legislative acts in the field of access to information to MPs. Presentations were led by local experts from the working group. International expert Toby Mendel and representatives of the UK's Ministry of Justice also took part.
The working group has met several other times to discuss and propose a new draft “Law of the Kyrgyz Republic on the Right of Access to Information”, incorporating new elements that are not present in the existing legal framework and amending other aspects to bring them into line with international standards.
New elements incorporated into the draft law:
- Ensuring the law on access to information takes priority over secrecy laws in case of conflict.
- Strengthening the system of appeals for refusals to provide information by establishing an alternative jurisdiction to consider complaints about refusal to provide information.
- Exceptions to the right of access to information have been elaborated in greater detail: e.g. incorporating a harm test, so that it is only where disclosing information would harm a protected interest that it may be withheld, and a public interest override, so that information should always be released where this is in the overall public interest.
- Additional promotional measures to help ensure strong implementation of the law.
Having finalised the draft law, the committee has submitted it to the Ministry of Justice for review. In line with the legislative process in Kyrgyzstan, the law was then put to public discussion for a period of 30 days, before being passed to the Presidential Administration for feedback.
Once approval is given, the law will be sent to parliament, who will be responsible for the final version which is passed into law. The new law will make it easier for civil society actors to gain access to information, and in turn the government more accountable.