Access to information in the Baltics: RSF asks the authorities to address a weak spot of press freedom
The freedom of information suffers from significant shortcomings in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania despite their high ranking in the World Press Freedom Index. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has partnered a unique study by Balticada Investigations Studio based on empirical research and making specific recommendations such as clarifying the obligations of public data holders and simplifying the appeal procedures.
Private data, business secrets and national security may all be legitimate reasons for refusing access to information. But they are also abused as a pretext to illegitimately block freedom of information requests filed by journalists in the Baltics.
Ahead of the International Public Service Day of 23 June, Balticada Investigations Studio is publishing with the support of RSF a ground-breaking study which addresses recommendations to Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania based on a unique comparative analysis of fifteen disputes over access restriction between journalists and public servants. Supported by RSF, the study Disputes over access was conducted by the Balticada Investigations Studio and authored by media experts, including RSF’s adviser for the Baltic states, Dionizas Litvaitis, and the organisation’s correspondent in Latvia, Anastasija Tetarenko-Supe.
“While the Baltics belong to countries with the best press freedom in the world, the access to information is one of their weak spots. RSF calls on the Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian authorities to address this issue by launching a public debate on the regional and national recommendations provided by the report.
A key finding of the study is that when misinterpreting the legitimate reasons for restrictions, data holders – including institutions or state-owned companies – are motivated by factors such as informal decision-making and lack of trust in journalists’ intentions.
The research has also demonstrated that journalists give up on contesting the ban on information due to lack of resources and competence, as well as the civil servants’ resistance. As a result, only a few experienced and determined reporters in the Baltic states challenge the non-disclosure and defend public interest. The most worrying trend is, however, that in most of the analysed cases, the journalistic community was denied a proper public discussion about the limits of freedom of information. The disputes over access did not lead to any improvement.
“Our study is the first one ever to have conducted an empirical research into the refusal to exercise the freedom of information in the three Baltic countries. The multidimensional restrictions require a multi-layered policy reply. The objective is to strengthen the position of journalists who guarantee the right of citizens to information.
One of the main recommendations made by the authors for all three countries is to clarify the duties of the different types of entities obliged to provide public information: state or partially state-owned companies, state-funded private foundations and independent agencies. On the national level, the report proposes to Latvia and Lithuania to follow Estonia’s example in designing problem-specific FOI appeal procedures.
Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia are ranked respectively 7th, 8th and 16th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2023 World Press Freedom Index.