Why Italy Needs a Proper Freedom of Information Law
By Guido Romeo
How safe is your child’s school? Is your municipality gambling taxpayer’s money in risky and unfavorable swap contracts? Or simply, when is the last time the restaurant down the road passed its health inspection? These are just a handful of the questions Italian civil society activists and journalists have started asking in the recent months.
Queries such as these should receive an answer in any democratic country with a freedom of information law. Yet rarely have they received a satisfactory answer in Italy—and sometimes only after a court appeal. The previous government, headed by Mario Monti, pushed hard on transparency in an effort to fight corruption—an endemic plague estimated to drain €60 billion from the country’s economy every year.
Transparency has also been one of the strongest arguments in Beppe Grillo’s political campaign, which led his M5S to conquer 25 percent of votes in the February elections. With much fanfare, Italy recently joined the Open Government Partnership, and in April, a new transparency law (Decree 33/2013) came into effect.
However, on-the-ground transparency still seems in a dire state. When it comes to access to information (the public’s right to obtain and use information), which is internationally recognized as the cornerstone of transparency, Italy's institutions fail to satisfy citizen and media requests almost three times out of four.
Here at Diritto Di Sapere (“Right to Know”), we spent the last couple of months testing how responsive various branches of Italy’s public administration are to requests for information, in collaboration with Access-Info Europe. We filed 300 requests on matters like public expenditure, health, environment, justice, and immigration to local, regional, and federal authorities on behalf of individuals representing civil society, the media, and general public.
This monitoring exercise, unprecedented in Italy, was made possible by a grant from the Open Society Foundations. In contrast with assessments conducted so far, we didn’t aim to evaluate Italy’s access law itself but to measure Italians’ right to information in practice. The findings are documented in The Silent State, the first report of its kind in Italy.
Results are all but comforting: Of the 300 requests filed, 73 percent didn’t receive a satisfactory answer—meaning the response was incomplete, inadequate, or didn’t answer the original question. Sixty-five percent of the requests weren’t answered at all within the legal time limit, and only 13 percent of the requests received a full answer. The remaining requests received partially satisfactory answers or a written refusal.
Our study represents a first step in the promotion and expansion of access to information in Italy. At present we are building a nationwide coalition of civil society and media organizations to campaign for an Italian Freedom of Information Act.
The first part of the campaign, beginning in the next few weeks, is aimed at popularizing the concept of the right of access to information. Individuals and organizations will be able to take action by signing a manifesto and sharing their own cases of lack of access on issues of significant impact for their community. The second phase of the campaign will involve the appeal and, if necessary, court filing of access refusal cases to build a stronger base for a real Freedom of Information Act.
Diritto Di Sapere is a grantee of the Open Society Foundations.
Guido Romeo is a journalist and co-founder of Diritto Di Sapere, an organization working on access to information.