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Senate backs transparency - within limits

The Senate wants old documents to remain secret Keystone

Official documents could soon be accessible - within limits - to the public, under a new proposal voted in by the Senate.

This content was published on December 9, 2003 - 12:41

The move is aimed at boosting communication between citizens and the federal administration, as well as strengthening trust in public institutions.

The proposed legislation is intended to create a more transparent administration and improved public access to information.

“Our state needs active, well-informed citizens,” Justice Minister Ruth Metzler told the Senate.

The house approved the legislation by 32 votes to zero and made one amendment to the original government proposal – the law should only apply to documents drawn up after it has come into force.

Top secret

Until now official documents, with a few exceptions, have remained within the administration. Under the proposed law, such documents will be made public in principle, but there are limitations.

Access may be limited, refused or postponed if the documents are not finalised, if there is a possible risk to national security or if making the data public could adversely affect a particular authority’s ability to take decisions.

This effectively means that only a small number of confidential documents will be made public if the law comes into force.

“In this way, we can be sure that confidential documents remain confidential,” Luzius Mader, vice-director of the justice ministry, told swissinfo.

Limits

But critics say that these limitations could be extended to cover practically all official documents.

Mader said he was not yet sure how restrictive the law would be and this would only become clear if it comes into force.

The legislation would also apply to public services such as the Swiss Post Office, Swiss Federal Railways, Pro Helvetia - the Arts Council of Switzerland, Suva - Swiss corporate health insurance company, and the Swiss national science foundation.

Mader said that the legislation was not intended to be revolutionary but rather evolutionary. Its main aim was to build up trust between the administration and the people.

Long wait

The Swiss have had to wait a long time for the national transparency law. It was first mooted 20 years ago.

Explaining the long delay, Metzler said even she had been sceptical about the law when she had first heard about it.

A similar law is already in place in Sweden. But it is not the first time that the principle of transparency has been applied within Switzerland, as several cantons, including Bern, Geneva and Solothurn, already have a similar procedure.

Canton Bern, which was the first to implement transparency in 1995, has given positive feedback.

Unfounded

Gérard Caussignac, from the canton Bern justice department, said fears that the administration would be overloaded by such a move had proved unfounded.

“In general we had very little extra work because of the transparency principle,” Caussignac told swissinfo, adding that there had only been a few clashes.

Mader also said he didn’t expect a deluge of work if the law comes into force on a national scale, because it hadn’t happened in any other countries.

The proposal will now be sent to the House of Representatives for approval.

swissinfo

In brief

The European Union has had transparency measures in place for the council, commission, parliament since 2001.

Transparency is already in place worldwide: Sweden, Australia, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Great Britain, Ireland, Canada, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, Hungary, United States.

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