Public Information Requests in Europe: Transparency Delayed is Not Transparency at All

by Ángela Bernardo, Eva Belmonte/Civio

In practice, compliance with transparency laws in Europe is worse due to lack of resources, arbitrary application of limits or lack of enforceability by administrations.

This article was originally published on civio.es

Public entities in ItalyGermany and Spain have one calendar month to respond to requests for access to public information. They do not even always meet this deadline, which is the longest of the countries examined in a Civio-led investigation by members of the European Data Journalism Network (EDJnet).

At the other extreme is Slovakia, which grants its authorities only eight working days, excluding weekends and public holidays. PolandPortugalCroatia and the Czech Republic, allow almost half a month to respond to requests made through their transparency lawsSlovenia and Greece allow 20 working days, which places them almost at the bottom of the countries analysed.


What the ten European countries surveyed do share is a general lack of compliance with transparency rules. “The law is good. The problem is its implementation,” says Croatian journalist Dijana Pribačić Jurić of H-Alter“We have had cases where, after a lengthy administrative procedure, we received information on our journalistic requests only after two to three years, when they are no longer relevant in a journalistic sense,” adds Toni Gabrić, editor in chief of the same media outlet. The same happens in Spain, Portugal and Greece, according to sources interviewed by Civio.

Why the exercise of the right of access to public information (often) fails

Unfortunately, it is not common for access requests to be satisfied within a reasonable period of time, even with a favourable opinion from a transparency council, if it does exist. “If the entity does not provide information or does not reply, the only option is to demand it through administrative litigation. This can take years, even a decade,” says Daniel Kerekes, data journalist at the Slovak organisation Denník N. In Spain, public entities sometimes ignore rulings by the Council for Transparency and Good Governance, which has no sanctioning power.

This reality makes it difficult, in practice, to exercise the right to know. In Italy, according to Luca Giunti of the organisation Openpolis, “the procedure has an implicit cost in terms of time and resources (e.g. lawyers who can follow the case)”, which means that a large proportion of citizens do not make requests for access or, if necessary, do not follow up with legal demands.

In Germany, according to Arne Semsrott, spokesperson for FragDenStaat, “the main problems are slow answers and fees; it’s possible for authorities to take up to 500 € per request” if it will take more than a nominal amount of time. Not only that: although the deadline for a decision under federal law is one month, those who request information and do not get it must wait three months to complain. This means that in many cases, the actual time to respond to requests is longer than the four weeks set by law.

As a result, the common trend is that requesters must fight almost constantly to obtain data from public administrations. In addition, authorities can also limit access to public information by restrictions that turn into real barriers. Among the usual exemptions are the right to privacy, economic and commercial interests, or national security. The application of these limits is often uneven, creating uncertainty for requesters. This is the case in Poland, for example: “The reasons for not providing information can be arbitrary,” says editor Urszula Kifer of Frontstory.

Except for Italy and Spain, whose transparency laws are more recent, most of the countries surveyed in this investigation have transparency laws that date back almost a quarter of a century, yet those countries have not resolved the problems with implementing their transparency laws. In other cases, such as in Greece, regulatory gobbledegook hinders the right of access. This is an obstacle for ensuring transparency, despite the fact that, according to the sources consulted, on paper, the regulations marked a turning point in public accountability.

English editing: Lucas Laursen


Of the thirty or so members of EDJNet, we obtained information from ten European Union countries (Slovakia, Poland, Greece, Italy, Germany, Czech Republic, Croatia, Slovenia, Portugal and Spain). Daniel Kerekes (Denník N), Urszula Kifer (Frontstory), Luca Giunti and Anita Ishaq (Openpolis), Thanasis Troboukis (iMEdD), Daniel Kotecký (Deník Referendum), Dijana Pribačić Jurić and Toni Gabrić (H-Alter), Taja Topolovec and Hana Radilovič (Pod črto), Danuta Pawlowska (BIQdata.wyborcza.pl – Gazeta Wyborcza), Luciana Maruta (Divergente), Nikos Morfonios (MIIR), Gianna Gruen (DW), and Lorenzo Ferrari (OBCT/CCI) contributed to the reporting of this story.

We would also like to thank Arne Semsrott from FragDenStaat for answering our questions about the situation in Germany. In Germany, although there has been a federal law in place since 2006, the federal system means that the fourteen Länder have differing transparency regulations, and two lack them altogether.

The data was obtained after surveying members of the European Data Journalism Network (EDJNet) and verifying their answers with the respective national transparency laws. The form included questions on the existence of national legislation on the right of access, the date of entry into force of the law, the time to reply to requests, differentiating between calendar and working days, the limits to restrict the exercise of the right and the most common problems in the practical application of the law. To calculate the number of working days, we estimated them assuming a 31-day month and that the request takes place on a Monday, the first of the month.

You can download the data here.

This article, as a publication of European Data Journalism Network, is published under a CC BY-SA 4.0 licence.

The European Data Journalism Network

EDJNet is a network of media organisations from all across Europe, producing and promoting data-driven coverage of European issues. FRONTSTORY.PL is a part of this network.