Freedom of Information Law Gets Low Marks, 10 Years on

Ten years after Israel enacted its Freedom of Information Law, there is a debate over its accomplishments: Some experts believe the law had little impact, while others say it made the situation worse.

Among those who think the situation has worsened is MK Dov Khenin (Hadash). At a meeting of the Knesset Internal Affairs Committee last December, he explained that in the past, one would ask an official for permission, and unless there was particular reason to refuse the request, it was granted. "Now," said Khenin, "there is a law, so fill out the forms and pay the fee."

Ro'i Peled, chairman of the Movement for Freedom of Information, does not think the situation has become worse, but neither is he happy with the situation. He noted that two committees, one public and one parliamentary, worked to prepare the bill and invested a great deal of effort in it. The law was finally passed in 1998, and states that every citizen and resident has the right to receive information from the authorities.

However, Peled said, government ministries prefer not to see the law as guaranteeing the public's right to information; instead, they focus on the list of restrictions that allow them to prevent information from being released to the public. For example, he said, out of 30 countries whose freedom of information policies his group evaluated, only four charge individuals a fee to access information, and Israel is one of them.

The grim situation is underscored by a report on freedom of information that was published late last year by the Israel Union for Environmental Defense (Adam Teva v'Din). The report examined 31 court cases filed against the state to obtain data on the environment. The intolerable ease with which the state refuses access to information is evident in the fact that in all 31 instances, it eventually provided the information - and in 42 percent of the cases, it surrendered the information without even waiting for the court to rule. The authors of the report concluded: "In many cases, the authorities avoid releasing information as much as possible and force the public to turn to expensive and time-consuming legal proceedings."

But the lack of awareness of freedom of information is not a problem that afflicts the government only. The general public also seems to shun this notion. Peled said that for every 1,000 citizens, five requests for freedom of information are filed in the United States, two in Britain and 1.5 in Bulgaria. But in Israel, there are only 0.5 requests per 1,000 citizens.

"In theory, every individual is entitled to information. Just file a request," said Khenin. "In practice, how would an ordinary citizen go about doing this? Anyone who lacks the time, money and means will find himself stuck."

In 2007, the Movement for Freedom of Information published its first Freedom of Information Index. Twenty-two ministries and government agencies were asked for information on the minister's daily agenda, the funding the ministry provides, the staff's wages, the names of officials who were personally appointed by the minister and details of their jobs. The Absorption Ministry was ranked at the bottom, described as ignoring the law entirely. Then housing minister Meir Sheetrit argued that the public should not be interested in his daily agenda. The State Comptroller's Office and the Ministry of Justice, which are in theory charged with implementing the law, were ranked 12 and 13, respectively.

Several MKs are preparing amendments to the Freedom of Information Law that are meant to force government offices to relax their grip on information and make it easier for the public to obtain access to data. One amendment, which was sponsored by Likud faction chairman Gideon Sa'ar and MK Shelly Yachimovich (Labor), and has already passed its preliminary reading, would set up a Freedom of Information Commission to which citizens could turn with complaints about government offices that refuse to release information, thereby obviating the need to go to court. Peled said that every country that enacted a Freedom of Information Law in the past two decades has set up such a commission - except Israel.

Another amendment, which has also passed its preliminary reading, would allow citizens to sue a government office that fails to release information as mandated by the law for as much as NIS 50,000. That proposal was sponsored by Knesset House Committee Chairman David Tal (Kadima) and MK Michael Eitan (Likud).