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Dear FOI Advocates

August 29, 2007.

    Access Info Europe, Article 19 and the Open Society Justice Initiative are today launching a campaign to call for the future European Convention on Access to Official Documents, currently in preparation by the Council of Europe, to meet international standards and to ensure adequate protection of the right to information.
    We are urging all FOI Advocates around the world to join the campaign through a sign-up letter (attached) and other actions (listed below).
    The problem: If the current draft of the Convention is adopted it will become the world’s first treaty to guarantee the right of access to information but it will fall below prevailing European and international standards, thereby flying in the face of the enormous progress made in the past several years. The final drafting session will take place in Strasbourg during 9-12 October 2007.
    The future Convention will establish a right to request “official documents”, which are broadly defined as all information held by public authorities, in any form. On the positive side, the Convention will establish that the right to “official documents” can be exercised by all persons with no need to demonstrate a particular interest in the information requested, and at no charge for filing requests and viewing documents.
    However, the draft treaty has a number of serious flaws :
    1. Failure to include all official documents held by legislative bodies and judicial authorities within the mandatory scope of the treaty;
    2. Failure to include official documents held by natural and legal persons insofar as they perform public functions within the mandatory scope of the treaty;
    3. Failure to specify certain basic categories of official documents, such as those containing financial or procurement information, that must be published proactively.
    4. Absence of a guarantee that individuals will have access to an appeals body which has the power to order public authorities to disclose official documents.
    5. Absence of a guarantee that individuals will be able to appeal against violations of the right of access other than "denial" of a request (such as unjustified failures to provide access in a timely fashion or in the form preferred by the requester).
    6. Lax drafting of exceptions that permit withholding of official documents under the internal deliberations and commercial interest exemptions:
    a. There are no time limits on the application of the internal deliberations exemption; such documents may be withheld indefinitely, even after a final decision on the matter has been taken;
    b. The treaty should protect only “legitimate commercial interests,” not all and any “commercial interests,” as in the present draft.
    7. Absence of a requirement that states set statutory maximum time-limits within which requests must be processed.
    More analysis of these problems can be found in the attached documents.
    The final drafting session in Strasbourg starts on 9 October 2007. We need to take action now to convince governments which of the 47 member states of the Council of Europe to insist on improvements to the draft Convention before it is finalized. We plan to use International Right to Know Day, 28 September 2007, to highlight these concerns.
    ACTION: Attached is a sign up letter to the drafting group. We are aiming for as many signatures as possible from NGOs (civil society groups) and individuals across Europe and around the world by 28 September. You can sign up by writing to me (helen@access-info.org or helen.darbishire@gmail.com), or to the e-mail address treaty@access-info.org. The deadline for signing is 17 hrs CET (5 pm) on Wednesday 26th September, so that we can release it to the media for coverage on 28th September.
    Please encourage other NGOs to sign as well. All human rights and other civil society groups should care about this issue and are welcome to sign the letter. Interested individuals can also sign. A copy of the letter and a sign-up link can be found on the home page of Access Info: www.access-info.org, along with more information.
    A copy of the draft treaty can be found via a link on the Access Info home page.
    The attached document gives a list of WHAT YOU CAN DO and these ideas are copied below. These actions are mainly for people in the 47 Council of Europe member states, but others are welcome to do whatever they can to support the campaign: this treaty will have a global relevance!!
    Access Info Europe (Helen Darbishire and Eva Moraga) is coordinating the campaign, liaising with Article 19 (Daniel Simons) and the Justice Initiative (Sandra Coliver, Darian Pavli and Eszter Filippinyi). Please contact any of us to discuss what action you can take! Here are some ideas:
    • Contact your representatives in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe: Every Council of Europe member state sends parliamentarians to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE). If possible, meet with your country’s representatives and call on them to raise the issue in the next session of the Parliamentary Assembly in Strasbourg.
    The national delegations to the Parliamentary Assembly are listed here http://assembly.coe.int/ASP/AssemblyList/AL_DelegationsList_E.asp
    • Get the support of other NGOs: Translate information about the the problems with the Convention into your language and distribute it to other civil society groups: encourage them to sign the letter. This issue is relevant to human rights groups, environmentalists, consumer groups, women’s and youth groups … anyone who needs information should care about this issue!
    • Spread the word: Let other interested communities know about the issue and call on them to take action and disseminate the news: archivists, librarians, bloggers, and academics (such as in faculties of communication, law, political science, etc) are among the groups of people who are likely to care about this issue and help raise concerns.
    • Discuss with Information Commissioners: If your country has an Information Commissioner, let them know about this issue and discuss what joint actions you might be able to organise, such as a public debate of the right to information. In other countries it is possible that Data Protection Commissioners and Human Rights Ombudspersons would be interested in the issue and ready to participate in public discussions or talk to members of government.
    • Write to your government: Write to your Head of Government (President or Prime Minister as appropriate) and the Ministers of Justice and Foreign Affairs and call on them to urge their representatives at the Council of Europe to take action to press for the treaty to meet the minimum standards. Get as many national NGOs as possible to sign the letter to your government.
    • Brief the politicians: Try to meet with government representatives to explain the issues to them – find out what their opinion is and if they will support the call for a strong treaty.
    • Try for a parliamentary resolution: Brief parliamentarians and, where possible, urge them to adopt a resolution calling for the treaty to meet minimum standards (declarations of support from political parties could also be helpful).
    • Brief the media: Tell journalists (especially those who write about access to information) about the problems and get them to write stories: ask them to ask the government what it is doing to ensure the treaty meets the highest standards. Let the media know that on September 28, International Right to Know Day, there will be news about how many groups have signed the NGO letter as well as about actions taking place all across Europe.
    • Right to Know Day Special Actions: On 28 September, in addition to your regular Right to Know Day activities, take some special action to promote awareness of the Council of Europe treaty problem. Keep an eye on the Access Info Europe website for the latest news on what groups are doing around Europe and how many NGOs have signed the joint letter.
    Countries with representatives on the Groups of Specialists are Belgium, Bulgaria, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Russian Federation, Spain, Sweden, Turkey and United Kingdom.
    Other countries may participate in the discussions – Slovenia was one such participant in the July 2007 drafting session. Since all 47 Council of Europe member countries have a representative in Strasbourg, it may be that your government can send this person (or another appropriate representative such as the Information Commissioner from your country) to make a contribution to the final treaty drafting session.
    Need more info?
    If you would like to know more about how the process in Strasbourg works and to discuss what action to take, please feel free to call us:
    Access Info tel: +34 91 743 14 73 and ask for Helen or Eva.
    Helen mobile : + 34 667 685 319, or via Skype: helen_darbishire.
    Helen Darbishire
    Executive Director
    Access Info Europe
    calle Principe de Anglona 5, 2c
    28005 MADRID - Spain
    mobile: + 34 667 685 319
    helen@access-info.org or helen.darbishire@gmail.com
    Skype: helen_darbishire

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