By Andrey Sushko, the expert of Lawtrend Legal Transformation Center
In the beginning of June 2014, the Lawtrend Legal Transformation Center monitored the presence of specific categories of socially significant information on websites of government bodies and governmental organizations. The monitoring has revealed a poor degree of openness in terms of information categories and informational systems. This can be explained by the absence of relevant obligations in the national legislation, and sometimes by policies which actively encourage the commercial usage of socially significant information.
Parameters represented most comprehensively
Total amount of taxes paid. Information on total amount of taxes paid by individuals and organizations is provided at the website of the Ministry for Finances within monthly and annual reports on budget execution. The documents published contain information on amounts paid for various categories of taxes. The data published is not organised by source (individuals, organizations) or by region.
Legislative acts. The National Register of Legal Acts of the Belarus Republic (henceforth referred to as the National Register) has existed since January 1, 1999. It was created according to Presidential Decree #369 of Jul 20, 1998, On the National Register of Legal Acts of the Belarus Republic. The e-version of the National Register is available through the National Legal Web Portal of the Belarus Republic. All publicly accessible normative legal acts are published in PDF format. There is also the Etalon e-database, which, for a fee, grants access to legislative acts in their current state (with all actual amendments) and provides extended possibilities for database searching.
State procurements. State procurement plans, procedures, and results can be tracked on the official website. However, there are some flaws in its functioning: for instance, it is impossible to search for texts of procurement contracts by the name of the government body. Also, start and end dates for documentation submission (for potential vendors and contractors) are often not defined clearly.
Parameters presented most poorly
Information on the Register of entrepreneurs and organizations. In Belarus, there is a Unified State Register of Legal Entities and Individual Entrepreneurs. Its web portal allows one only to find the names of legal entities for free. It is possible to obtain a detailed extract from the Register (including information on founders, legal address, and other registration data), but only for a charge, and upon receipt of a written or online request. To learn more about the procedure for access to Register information, see http://minjust.by/ru/site_menu/edin_gos_register/inf_iz_egr
Information from the real estate ownership register. The Unified State Register of Realty, Rights to and Transactions allows one to obtain detailed information about real estate objects in Belarus. One can learn free of charge whether there is a record in the Register regarding a specific object. To get online access to the record itself (via the http://gzk.nca.by/ website), subscription (for a charge) is needed.
Information on officials' incomes and properties. Belarusian legislation does not require the publication of such information.
Information on parliamentary voting results. There is no normative provision regarding electoral vote results. In practice, they are published by the mass media in exclusive cases. Article 96 of The Regulations of the House of Representatives of the Belarus Republic National Assembly states: "<...> Following a decision by the House of Representatives, electoral vote results can be published in the mass media".
Shorthand records of Government meetings. The Council of Ministries of the Belarus Republic does not publish such information.
Crime map. Although the Ministry for Internal Affairs publishes quite detailed statistical data on crime acts and law offences' types and numbers (subdivided by districts), no governmental or non-governmental entity has implemented a project for crime mapping up to now. At the Ministry website, data are published in a format that is not electronically processable.
Most illustrative examples of information availability
A) Best practices
Cadastre map of Belarus. In mid-April 2014, the National Cadastre Agency launched a website to test the Public Cadastre Map of Belarus, showing information from registers and lists of the State Land Cadastre.
Information on persons hosted by the head of state during the current year. On the new version of the Presidential official web portal, the special subsection, Meetings, is introduced, publishing detailed information on guests hosted by the President.
B) Negative examples
Information on parliamentary voting results. There is no normative provision requiring electoral vote results. In practice, they are published by the mass media only in exclusive cases. The Regulations of the House of Representatives of the Belarus Republic National Assembly, Article 96 states: "<...> Upon decision by the House of Representatives, electoral vote results can be published in mass media".
Information about voting stations and texts of decisions made following elections in the majority of voting stations. The legislation of the Belarus Republic does not obligate the government to provide any services for searching a relevant voting station by a voter's personal data at the Central Election Commission's official website, or indeed on other informational resource. In practice, there is no such a service.
In Belarus, there is no online access to texts of local election commissions' decisions since the legislation does not require to publish them online for permanent public access. In accordance with the Election Code norms, copies of local election commissions' protocols on vote counting are made available (in hard copy) for public access during an election period in voting stations' rooms.
State information online placement in Belarus: general conclusions
Having analyzed the results of the monitoring conducted in mid-2013, the Lawtrend Center for Legal Transformation revealed that national governmental bodies' official websites do not fully meet either the requirements of national legislation regarding online access to government bodies' information, or common technical requirements for the contents and functioning of official websites. Republican executive government bodies' official websites serve as a one-way channel for restricted information, rather than an efficient tool enabling access to information held by government bodies. It becomes still more difficult to use information provided by the state due to complications in information searching and processing.
The monitoring allows us to draw a number of conclusions:
There is only a narrow list of information categories mandatory for coverage on official websites in Belarus. It does not include most categories of information and services studied within the context of our investigation. Thus, government bodies do not aspire to place socially significant information online, unless it is actually stipulated in the legislation.
In Belarus, there are a number of state informational systems available for online access; however, access to most of the databases (registers, lists) studied, including access to the state legislation e-database, is provided only for a fee, and thus cannot be called ‘open’. Such an approach to publication of socially significant information decreases general governmental openness.
Based on priorities of the implementation of governmental transparency and of the widest access to state sector information, according to the public interest, we propose the following:
A) to extend the list of normative requirements to government bodies concerning the availability of socially significant information online;
B) to revise the practice of commercial usage of state informational systems containing socially significant public information.
I am not surprised by the monitoring results for Belarus. Since our legislation defines quite a narrow list of requirements to government bodies' websites and most categories evaluated are not provided by it, the low rating is quite predictable.
Within the study, we have noticed an interesting trend: if there were free access to a number of registers, lists, and legislative information, the openness rate could be rather higher. I believe this is an issue to be addressed among others when discussing online informational openness.
To this end, I would like to encourage anyone who can be upset by the low informational rating of Belarus. The discussion on online openness of our state is at the very initial stage, and such studies should be considered not as adverse criticism but as a piece of advice revealing problem zones and gaps. In my opinion, comparison with countries that have already managed to achieve more in this field can help to reveal growing-points.
Basic normative legal acts regulating online access to information in the country:
The Constitution of the Belarus Republic, Article 34, provides citizens with the right to obtain, to store, and to disseminate full, reliable, and actual information on activities of government bodies and of public associations as well as on political, economical, cultural, and international life, and on state of the environment. Article 7 of the Constitution states the specific obligation to make citizens familiar with government bodies' acts as a means of accountability for the rule of law.
The Law “On Normative Legal Acts of the Belarus Republic” introduces the principle of transparency (though does not define its components and scope) regarding activities of:
• lawmaking bodies and their officials (Article 8);
• the House of Representatives of the Belarus Republic's National Assembly (while the House's Regulations, Article 131 fixes principles of transparency and openness for working on draft laws).
The term "public information" is defined by the Law “On Information, Informatization and Information Protection” #455-3 from Nov 10, 2008 (referred to here onwards as the Law), which also lists categories of information to which access may not be restricted.
The obligation of republican state governance bodies, local executive and regulatory bodies, other government bodies and governmental organizations, and of economic societies to place information on their activities either at websites of their own or of their supervisory bodies/organizations has been written into law for the first time by the Decree of the President of Republic of Belarus ”On the measures for Improvement of the Use of the National Segment of the Internet" #60 from Feb 1, 2010 (referred further as Decree #60).
According to Paragraph 1.4. of this law, an official website should contain: general information on a government body; information on work with citizens' and legal entities' applications; on holding administrative procedures regarding citizens, legal entities, and individual entrepreneurs and on goods (works, services) provided by a governmental organization. Access to these information categories should be free; governmental bodies and organizations should not charge for access to the information in question.
In April 2010, following Decree #60, the Regulation "On the procedure of the operation of web sites of state bodies and organizations" (approved by the Resolution of the Council of Ministers of the Republic of Belarus # 645 from April 29, 2010, referred further as Resolution # 645) was approved. Resolution # 645 defines goals for launching an official website, the procedure for its functioning, and defines in more detail what categories of information must be made available at the official websites.
In early January 2014, a number of significant amendments and extensions were introduced to the Law. On the one hand, they are aimed to regulate information provision to citizens more thoroughly and have for the very first time obliged governmental bodies and organizations to place information on their activities at official websites; on the other hand, they have defined restrictions of the public right to information access.