The Czech Republic, in 1999, passed a law outlining freedom of information (Act No. 106/1999 Coll.). However, twelve years later the attitude of Czech authorities to openness remains bleak. Most notably, authorities have refused to disclose the salaries of high-level government officials, deepening public suspicion of cronyism and corruption. In this environment, the Open Society Fund Prague is supporting investigative journalists in their attempts to uncover, what should be, publicly-available information and helping to demonstrate the importance of access to information.
The depth of this situation was recently illustrated by Sabina Slonková, a journalist with the Aktuálně.cz news. Slonková, with the support of Open Society Fund Prague, sent requests to 66 Czech authorities (including all 14 government ministries) asking for information on the salaries and bonuses of ministers, heads of offices, and deputies. Slonková’s request was based not only on the Act No. 106 itself, but also a May 2011 verdict from the Supreme Administrative Court confirming that the salaries of state employees are indeed public information. Despite this Slonková received a mere five responses, only two of which provided sufficient information related to her request.
This in itself, would perhaps not be so terrible, as the willingness of governments to be open and transparent is not something that happens overnight. However, less than two weeks after Slonková wrote a series of articles on the refusal to disclose salaries, members of the Green Party revealed that that the government had inserted a legislative rider into a Health Reform Act that would exempt government salaries from Act No. 106—keeping the salaries of high-level government officials a secret.
This story should be taken seriously not only because it is a real test to the rule of law in the Czech Republic, but also because the government has violated the law not once but twice. First, when the ministries refused to give information on salaries—information that is public under the law—and second when the government attempted to circumvent the law by introducing an unconstitutional rider into the Health Reform Act. The story only illustrates that enormous opportunity for corruption under the current system and politicians’ willingness to keep the status quo at all costs.
The core of the matter has recently been depicted by another journalist, Radek Kedroň from the daily newspaper Hospodářské noviny, whose work is also supported by Open Society Fund Prague. Before the municipal elections last fall, Kedroň uncovered significant financial flows into the coffers of political parties in Prague. Kedroň revealed that political parties would frequently place party members at the head of municipal companies where they would receive a considerable salary. The party member would then deposit a portion of his salary back into the political party's bank account—essentially co-opting funds from the public sector to benefit politicians and their parties.
Slonková and Kedroň’s investigative journalism has showed that the system is more open to corruption than it is to its citizens. Yet there is still hope to be found in these stories.
First, it is clear that some journalists are not afraid to stir up a hornet's nest. In the Czech Republic, it is all too common for people to openly discuss how businessmen and politicians are in bed together, yet here are two instances of the media working in the public’s best interest.
Second, although there is no reason to rejoice over Slonková's test result, it is important that five authorities responded, and the case could set an interesting precedent.
Third, more and more the public is beginning to understand that they are akin to shareholders in a company and therefore have an indisputable right to know the salaries paid from their taxes. Public control of elected politicians is a prerequisite for the functioning of democracy.
Last, but not least: After the media reported on the government's rider to the Health Reform Act, which would exempt officials’ salaries from Act No. 106 keeping the information secret, several Members of Parliament promised that they will stand against the proposal. If this happens, the rule of law in the Czech Republic will win a small but important victory.