Unlike most other industrialized nations, Germany does not legally ensure free access to official information. But if current plans by the government go into effect, this could soon change.
You're free to pay for everything, but know nothing!?
Many German citizens would love to have a look at the illegal contracts reportedly awarded by the Federal Labor Office last year or the ongoing contractual muddle surrounding Germany’s truck toll system. But these files are closed to the public eye.
While most other European countries have laws which allow their citizens access to government files, Germany has yet to introduce such legislation. "The most important reason for this is that German civil servants are stuck to the notion that everything they do should be kept secret," said Reinhold Thiel, board member of global watchdog Transparency International's German chapter.
"It’s a relic of the old authoritarian state," Thiel told DW-WORLD. But this no longer fits to the information age in a modern democracy. "Transparency can also help to expose and prevent corruption," he added.
Ending the secrets
The German chapter of Transparency International is one of a group of organizations and trade unions that have come together to promote legislation giving citizens the right to access federal government files. The group, pro-information.de, has passed its suggestions for a so-called Informationsfreiheitsgesetz (IFG) or freedom of information law on to Berlin.
The files of the East German secret service Stasi are off-limits to many
The Social Democrat-Green coalition government, it appears, is all ears. An IFG is part of their current coalition treaty, as it was in the last legislation period. "There were already two previous drafts, but there was too much opposition by various ministries," said Thiel. Now, the red-green factions are reworking the law, which would put an end to the principle of nondisclosure.
Currently in Germany, only people directly affected by a procedure can apply to access government records and they must justify their reasons for disclosure. The IFG would change this by putting the onus for justification on the ministry and requiring that government officials provide reasons for not releasing information.
Inf ormation access not a basic right
For German industry, the planned IFG is a step in the wrong direction. Many companies fear that their price calculations will be made public in connection with tender offers. Or that certain trade and business secrets could come to light.
"It will make it very easy for anyone to look into the inner core of a company's know-how," said Sigrid Hintzen from the legal department at German Industry Federation BDI.
Companies fear everyone will know just how they budget their contracts
The Greens and Social Democrats have said they will ensure that such business secrets are protected from release. But this is not a solution, BDI fears. "This would mean that companies have to double-check all of their documents and mark confidential information," Hintzen told DW-WORLD. "It's unnecessary additional work."
According to Edda Müller, Executive Director of the Federation of German Consumer Organizations, more transparency in public administration is essential for consumers. "Authorities need to show how seriously they take consumer protection and how effectively they want to protect citizens' interests," Müller said. "We have to finally anchor this right for information access in Germany."
BDI, which has not been given the law's text for review, disagrees. "Examining official files is not a basic right," said Hintzen.
Success on the state level
The forerunner for Germany's IFG is the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in the United States. Introduced in 1966, the FOIA has become one of the most crucial instruments to journalists and other citizens for understanding events behind the scenes -- and to elicit unpleasant secrets from the government. When the Pentagon recently forbid the release of photographs showing soldiers' remains returning home from Iraq, an FOIA request resulted in their publication. Advocates of the IFG point to such instances as proof that disclosure can be positive.
The red-green government feels every citizen should have access to federal files
Critics of the IFG, on the other hand, worry that Germany's very strong data protection laws could be watered down in a new information act. But, Thiel of Transparency International said, personal information will be excluded from disclosure. There will also be an information ban regarding intelligence work, the foreign office or the defense ministry, he added.
On a state level, four German Länder have already introduced freedom of information laws: Brandenburg, Berlin, North Rhine-Westphalia and Schleswig-Holstein. The experiences there showed that citizens were not storming the authorities to get information, as many had feared.
Hansjürgen Garstka, Berlin's appointee for data protection and freedom of information, stressed that he and his colleagues have only seen positive results of the law. "It is urgent that the federal government and the other states also take this path to more transparency and democracy," Garstka said.
No longer a "secretive opponent"
During its first session in 1946, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution, which stated: "Freedom of information is a fundamental human right and (…) the touchstone of all the freedoms to which the UN is consecrated."
Supporters of such legislation say it is high time Germany passes its own IFG. "A freedom of information law can help the state show that it wants to be a transparent partner of its citizens and not a secretive opponent," said Gesine Schwan, President of Viadrina European University in Frankfurt/Oder and the presidential candidate of Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's coalition who lost the election earlier this year.
The ruling factions plan to introduce the bill towards the end of 2004. Proponents think it will pass. "The coalition needs a success," said Thiel. In these times when Chancellor Schröder is facing widespread discontent about his welfare reforms, a success for citizen participation could be just the right thing.