Warsaw has hidden provisions, that in practice allow state officials not to answer questions asked as part of access to public information, apparently as part of combating the coronavirus pandemic. As a result, journalists and members of the public cannot count on asking uncomfortable questions. Recent changes introduced by the country’s governing right-wing nationalist and populist Law and Justice (PiS) party will allow all officials to dispose of any inconvenient questions in silence. The reason that has been dished out: coronavirus outbreak.
As reported by Dziennik Gazeta Prawna, a well-known Polish newspaper, during the period of epidemic threat or epidemic status announced due to Covid-19 (the disease caused by the coronavirus), the procedural and legal deadlines for court proceedings, including administrative court proceedings, as well as other proceedings conducted pursuant to laws (such as the Act on the access to public information), do not start and is suspended for this period.
Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki argued that officials must “focus on the fight against coronavirus” – which is why access to public information, among others, is suspended in practice.
Watchdog Polska, a monitoring organization, is opposed to this approach and has voiced concern.
“By introducing the so-called special laws, the rulers also imposed censorship on public information and blocked openness. From March 31, 2020, no public institution in Poland has to answer the questions. We are doomed only to the official message,” the organization has been cited by the daily.
What constitutes public information?
The standard time for the disclosure of public information is 14 days. This catalog contains a lot of data because, according to the Act, “any information on public matters constitutes public information within the meaning of the Act and is subject to disclosure and reuse”.
Everyone has the right to information, however, there are certain reservations related to, for example, national security. In other words, certain information cannot be disclosed. However, there are only a few exceptions. Public authorities (e.g., ministries), economic and professional self-government bodies, entities representing the State Treasury, in accordance with separate regulations, must provide public information.
The main purpose of having access to public information is maintaining transparency in the state’s operations. Access to this type of data is guaranteed by the Polish constitution.
However, as reported by the daily, in accordance with the provisions adopted under the so-called anti-crisis shield, the 14-day deadline for a reply is not applicable. This means that failure to answer the question cannot be appealed to the court. In essence, the government, government officials, local governments, do not have to answer uncomfortable questions at all.