EU urges Luxembourg to widen access to government documents
Concerns over lobbying legislation and code of conduct for deputies also raised in report by the European Commission
The EU has expressed its concern over public access to official government documents in Luxembourg and “selective” disclosure of information – a longstanding complaint of media and campaign groups - in a report published on Tuesday.
Gaps also remain within the country’s code of conduct for members of parliament, according to the European Commission report, which examined the rule of law within the 27-nation bloc.
The latest report, the second of its kind, concluded that the Grand Duchy’s “framework for the protection of journalists remains robust” and acknowledged the government’s measures in the past year to strengthen the independence of the media regulator, ALIA (Autorité luxembourgeoise indépendante de l'audiovisuel), with increased resources, which it said “should alleviate concerns raised in last year’s report”. However, the Commission observed that “concerns remain on shortcomings” for access to official government documents and information for the press.
In April, a coalition comprising journalists and various lobby groups such as environmentalists, launched a campaign to highlight how difficult it is to get the government to release information.
The Grand Duchy's relationship with the media is often bumpy, with the head of the industry lobby, Fedil, saying that transparency was something for dictatorships in a recent row about a contract between the government and private broadcaster RTL - paid with €10 million in public money - that has been kept out of public sight. Prime Minister Xavier Bettel has also said he worried that transparency may hurt the country's business appeal. Luxembourg dropped three places to 20th in the most recent annual report on press freedom by the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) group. Since the start of Bettel's time in office in 2013, Luxembourg has dropped from 4th to 20th in the press freedom index.
The country was one of the last EU states to pass a document access law in 2018, but the result allowed many restrictions that make obtaining documents difficult. For example, the law excludes access to data or papers not officially marked as government documents. “Journalists recalled that Luxembourg is still one of the member states not to guarantee a fast-track access to information for the press that would be different from the right to access to information for citizens, and called on the government to introduce such a procedure,” the report noted. “Stakeholders raised concerns about the selective approach in disclosing information on the part of the authorities.”
Major flaws remain despite Luxembourg’s previous promises to improve the situation, the Commission noted, recalling that better access to information had been included in the government’s coalition programme for 2018-2023.
Away from the media, the code of conduct for Luxembourg’s elected deputies - which a bill currently going through parliament is aiming to reform - was also singled out for criticism from the Commission. The code “partially regulates lobbying activities” but “shortcoming remains as to the overall consistency and implementation”, the Commission found.
“Members of the parliament apply their own code of conduct, which regulates in-house meetings but not informal contacts. At the same time, there are no lobbying rules in force for members of the government and senior advisers,” the Commission said. “The lack of consistency and oversight of the obligation of members of the parliament to disclose their assets and gifts received remain the main issues, as also pointed out by the Group of States against Corruption of the Council of Europe (GRECO),” the report added. In the cases of so-called revolving doors and subsequent conflict of interests – whereby someone obtains a highly paid post elsewhere shortly after leaving public office – the Commission said that “room for improvement remains… as specific provisions exist only for members of the government,” the report added.
Although the government is currently assessing its anti-corruption measures, the Commission said that an intergovernmental committee, the Corruption Prevention Committee (COPRECO), which is to examine the legislation, has not performed any work of substance recently.
“COPRECO has not recently met, neither in person nor online, and has not received any written feedback on possible shortcomings in the anti-corruption legislation by any ministry,” the Commission said. At the end of last year the Grand Duchy was again slammed for inaction in updating its legislation, with a review by GRECO saying the country was leaving the door open for corruption and undue external influence.