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MP Antti Kaikkonen (ALDE) in the Council of Europe, Strasbourg, 2nd October 2013:

Access to information and national security

One of the key points that the rapporteur, Mr DÍAZ TEJERA, makes in the report is: “Access to information is of fundamental importance in a democratic society.” Many politicians, me included, strongly agree with that statement. Unfortunately this principle is not always put to practice even in democratic societies. During the past decade we have witnessed vital information being held secret in the name of national security. What is even more worrying is that in some cases this is done in order to cover up misuses of power.

Mr DÍAZ TEJERA states in his report that free access to information should not be seen as a contrary to national security interests but in fact it works in favour of it. Free access to information increases transparency and accountability of governments as well as enables public participation in the decision making process. When citizens and media can access information freely and easily, it works as a preventive for misuses of power. I hope that more countries will fully understand these benefits in the future and act accordingly.

It should be held as a basic principle that all information is public. Some restrictions may apply due to national security interests but these interests needs to be well defined and the burden of proof lies on the public administrators.

Most Council of Europe Member States already has some sort of laws on access to information. I encourage the remaining countries to take action towards this direction to strengthen democracy. However the report makes it clear that even though most countries have some sort of legal groundwork in this area, the laws and their implementation vary largely in different countries. Clarification of international standards is needed.

The report outlines the next important steps that the Member States should take in order to improve national security via access to information. For example in 2008, the Council of Europe has adopted an international treaty on the right to access public documents, the Council of Europe Convention on Access to Official Documents. However it has not entered into effect due to the lack of signing and ratifying by Member States.

The convention is not perfect and it includes long list of limitations to the access of information. It can still work as a good starting point. Unfortunately only a handful of Member States has both signed and ratified it. Finland and seven other countries have signed it but not ratified it. I agree with the rapporteur’s suggestion that we, the Parliamentary Assembly, should bring this question up in our home countries to complete the ratifying process. It would act as an important demonstration of our will and commitment to promote the values of transparency and good governance. 

Finally I have to mention the important role of the so called “whistle-blowers”. In democratic societies the media and journalists play the role of the guard dogs – checking that the institutions are working as they should and report any wrong doings to the people. However when dealing with issues handling national security, some media houses are perhaps afraid to publish or even investigate certain issues if afterwards they can be held accountable for unpatriotic actions. Therefore it is crucial that we protect public personnel if they decide to disclose information that reveals wrong doings on the state level. Like the Assembly has stated a few years back, whistle-blowers are needed as a “tool to increase accountability and strengthen the fight against corruption and mismanagement.” In my opinion this is a tool we cannot afford to lose.