Reply to press within 24 hours, Bettel orders officials
Government departments in Luxembourg must acknowledge a journalist's request for information within 24 hours, according to an updated version of the so-called 'Bettel Circular' published on Monday, although a rule for any civil servant wishing to speak to the press to get prior clearance remains in force.
The Government Council approved the amended text on June 15, but the changes were only announced in a statement by the Ministry of State on Monday, which said the new version "repeals and replaces" the first memo issued by Prime Minister Xavier Bettel in 2016.
The main changes include a specific instruction for press officers to respond to requests for journalists within 24 hours, which would mark a significant departure if followed. Requests for information at present frequently arrive long after a deadline has passed, if at all.
Monday's announcement followed a pledge by Bettel to make changes to the circular, in comments made to parliament in January.
If the information cannot be provided immediately, the circular notes, press officers must outline the estimated time required to get the details requested "as well as the reasons" for the delay.
A refusal to provide information sought must be accompanied by a "legal reason", the circular adds. For requests submitted at a weekend or on a public holiday, the 24-hour window begins on the next working day at 8am.
However, there has been no change to other rules from the original 2016 version, including a reminder to civil servants that they are bound by three conditions when contacted by journalists.
Officials must have "first sought the agreement" of their minister or head of department, and are forbidden from disclosing any details which are "secret by their nature" or which contain material "strictly internal to the administration" unless the relevant line manager has given consent.
The details of press officers are to be prominently featured on government websites, the text notes, and should list names, phone numbers and a general email address for each department, to which at least two civil servants must have access.
Taking effect one month after its publication - the end of July - a review of the circular will be carried out after six months, the statement by Bettel's office added.
Bettel has long defended his track record in upholding press freedom, despite Luxembourg dropping out the world's top 20 for press freedom in an annual ranking by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) published in May. Since the start of his time in office in 2013, Luxembourg has fallen from 4th to 21st in the press freedom index.
The Grand Duchy in 2018 was one of the last in the European Union to permit citizens to apply for access to government documents, and the law has many restrictions that makes it hard to actually obtain documents. That law would soon be revisited, Bettel reportedly told the Luxembourg journalists' association (ALJP) during a meeting last year.
ALJP criticised a press law passed last July for failing to mention problems faced by journalists' attempting to access information and not including demands to make it mandatory for authorities to provide information to reporters.
The EU also expressed its concern over public access to official government documents in Luxembourg and what it called the “selective” disclosure of information, in a report published last summer.