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Analysis 08 Jan 14

Albania Leaders Backtrack on Transparency Pledges

Edi Rama’s government is rapidly abandoning its election-time commitments about open access to information, critics say.

Besar Likmeta
Tirana
Albania PM Edi Rama | Photo by AP/Hektor Pustina

After nearly a decade of doing so, Albania’s government has decided to stop the publishing its decisions on the Council of Ministers website.

Since the new centre-left cabinet of Edi Rama took office in September, reporters and the public have received only snippets of information through press releases.

From now on, a media adviser for Prime Minister Rama told Balkan Insight, the public will only have full access to government decisions when they are published in the official gazette.

Critics say the move is a backward step in terms of the public’s right to access key information.

They say the government is backtracking on promises of greater transparency, made during the electoral campaign, and failing to honour commitments undertaken through international treaties.

As part of an international initiative, the Open Government Partnership, OPG, the government obliged itself in 2012 to promote transparency, fight corruption and harness new technologies to strengthen governance.

The commitments address three of the initiative's principles: increasing public integrity, improving public services and more effectively managing public resources.    

Speaking to reporters on New Year’s Eve about the government’s first 100 days, Rama declared that transparency remained the cornerstone of good governance.

“The first condition of good governance is transparency,” he said. “We are committed to governing through transparency and to modernizing the government and the whole state through transparency,” he added.   

However, not everyone agrees that the government has been open with the media and with the public.

An ethics code introduced at the first government meeting, which says ministers and public officials may only talk to the media following approval of the Prime Minister’s office, provoked heated debate.  

The decision to delay publication of government decisions until they appear in the official gazette is seen as another move to control and finesse media coverage.

“By not publishing its decisions at the moment that they are taken, the government aims to impede the public’s right to review its decisions and criticize them,” Gjergj Erebara, editor at the daily Shqip, said.

“Instead of the publication of its decisions, the public is being fed with propaganda cookies,” he added.

Erebara noted that when the government passed the fiscal package and the 2014 budget in December, instead of publishing the documents in full, it presented only a summary of the package at a press conference delivered by a minister.

“The cornerstone of every democratic society is that when someone proposes a draft law, act or decision, that decision is made available to the public,” Erebara said.

“This was an attempt to govern without public opinion,” he added, referring to the government’s handling of the fiscal package.

Gjergji Vurmo, an expert for the OPG Independent Monitoring Mechanism, of which Albania became part in 2012, says that Tirana implemented a number of commitments under the partnership as part of its first action plan 2012-2013. Now the country is in the process of preparing a new action plan for the following period.

Vurmo recalled that the first action plan contained 30 concrete commitments, which aimed to improve the public access to information, public consultation, e-government and the use of technology for open and responsible governance.

He notes that although not all OGP objectives spelled out in the action plan were met by the previous centre-right government they were meant to go far beyond the simple access to information.

 “In light of the obligations in the framework of the OGP, but also the long-standing practice to publish approved government decision in the website of the Council of Minister, the interruption of this practice is certainly a step backwards,” Vurmo said.

“The fact that government decisions are published in the official gazette is no argument to justify the fact that the government’s promises of transparency have been thwarted,” he added.

Vurmo said the decision to interrupt publication of government decisions is particularly at odds with commitment No 4 of the OGP.

This obliges member states to harness new technologies in order to “make more information public in ways that enable people to both understand what their governments do and to influence decisions,” he recalled.   

“This decision not only directly contradicts the spirit of the Open Government Partnership, but also the basic commitments undertaken by every member state,” he concluded.

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