Lifting the veil of secrecy in Albania: a step forward and the challenges ahead

Filed under: Lajme te reja |

21132_large_Wiretap_WideNGO Res Publica welcomes the recent decision of the General Prosecutor’s Office to disclose statistical information as to the number of surveillance measures (such as phone interceptions) authorized in 2014, 2013 and 2012. According to the document, operational surveillance measures were authorized in relation to 689 cases and concerning 3,140 individuals in 2014, as opposed to 3,112 individuals in 2013 and 2,315 in 2012.

The decision comes following investigative journalist Lindita Cela’s requests for information filed with the General Prosecutor’s Office, the State Secret Services and the General Police Directorate. All three agencies refused initialy to disclose the information requested, namely the number of surveillance measures they had carried out in the year 2014, on state secrets grounds. Ms Cela then filed an administrative appeal against the refusals before the Commissioner for the Right to Information and Protection of Personal Data.

At a public hearing before the Commissioner (the first hearing held since the establishment of the independent authority in November 2014), all three state organs reiterated their arguments and refused to disclose the information requested.  Ms Cela, represented by Res Publica, argued that on the basis of international human rights law and standards, the information requested was of a purely statistical nature and as such could not be considered confidential. After the hearing, the Commissioner called upon the three institutions to review the classification of the information requested as a state secret. By its decision to re-classify the information as not confidential, the General Prosecutor’s Office paved the way for its disclosure, thus reversing its previous refusal.

Executive Director for Res Publica Dorian Matlija hail the decision of the General Prosecutor’s Office as an important and bold step forward in bringing Albanian practice in line with the latest international law standards in the field of access to classified information and in particular the Global Principles on National Security and the Right to Information (also known as the Tshwane Principles). According to Mr. Matlija, the case also highlights the crucial role that independent institutions such as the Commissioner for the Right to Information can play in enhancing journalists’ and citizens’ timely access to information, thereby rendering state institutions more transparent and more accountable. “Instead of protracted and costly judicial proceedings before judges whose heavy workload does not allow them to be acquainted with the latest international developments in the field of access to information, Ms Cela’s request was heard expeditiously and at no cost before a specialized quasi-judicial body”, Mr. Matlija added.

Challenges however remain. Both the General Prosecutor’s Office as well as the State Secret Service refused to disclose the number of preventive surveillance measures, namely measures that are not authorized by an independent judicial body, maintaining their arguments as to the confidential nature of such information. Moreover, as of the date of writing, the General Police Directorate had not issued its decision on reviewing the classification of the information requested. Ms Cela has expressed her intention of pursuing her request until all information she has requested is disclosed. “It is time we started dismantling the culture of secrecy still prevailing in some pockets of state institutions”, she stated.

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