Access to Public Information
Dotcom Trading 121 (PTY) Ltd v. King
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The Supreme Court of Panama protected the right of access to information of Mr. Luis González, by ordering the delivery of public information related to land titling carried out in 1996, 1997, and 1998. González filed a habeas data proceeding against the Ministry of Agricultural Development after the deadlines established by law to provide the information he requested had expired. The Court determined that failing to provide requested information within the term established by law—or placing obstacles to delivering public information— is a violation of the right of access to information.
In July 2010, Mr. Luis González filed an access to information request before the Head of the Department of Land Adjudication of the National Directorate of Agrarian Reform of the Ministry of Agricultural Development, to obtain a copy of different files with information on land titling in 1996, 1997 and 1998, and a resolution from 2006.
The authority did not provide the requested information based on several arguments. According to González, the authority claimed that it did not have enough paper to provide copies of the required files, or that the file was in storage and the person who had the power to authorize the information request was absent. The authority also claimed that the petitioner had to disclose that he was “acting on behalf of another person, and later […] put their name on paper.”
Under these circumstances, Mr. González filed a habeas data action before the Supreme Court of Justice of Panama, in order to protect his fundamental rights and seek the delivery of the requested information without further obstacles. After evaluating the case, the Court granted the petitioner’s action and ordered the delivery of the required information.
The Supreme Court of Justice of Panama had to decide whether the non-delivery of information on land titling files, as requested by the plaintiff, within the legally established deadlines was a violation of the right of access to information.
The plaintiff considered that the information he requested was not delivered under the 30 days term provided by law and that the defendant placed unjustified obstacles in order to deny the required documents.
The defendant argued that “the [plaintiff’s] request did not comply with the procedure to be followed, since it was not lodged before the Director, [and] the petitioner never accredited his legitimacy within the process.” Hence, the authority denied the request. It also stated that the information requested is contained in files, which should be properly analyzed, due to the “large volume of documents contained therein”, before issuing a response. Lastly, the authority mentioned that the reproduction of the different documents required must be paid for by the applicant “due to budgetary limitations that make it impossible to assume this responsibility.”
The Court determined that the required information was not confidential or restricted. As such, the authority had, in principle, the obligation to fulfill the request submitted by the plaintiff and provide the information within the 30-day term established by Article 7 of Law No. 6 of 2002, which could be extended 30 days more if the request was complex or extensive, and the requested authority properly justified this.
The non-confidentiality of the information implies, on one hand, that any person is fully entitled to request it, and on the other, that it is not necessary for any petitioner to accredit or demonstrate legitimacy —or any particular or specific interest— in the requested documents.
Additionally, the Court considered that the defendant failed to properly communicate the reasons that hindered the delivery of the information in due time or that justified extending the original term provided by the law.
Thus, the Court concluded that “[…] the obligation to provide the information corresponds to the authority that possesses the documents, as is, in this case.”
For this, the law confers the state’s authorities 30 days to respond to an access to information request. In the case at hand, from the date of the request until the time when the present action was filed, more than three months had elapsed without the plaintiff ever receiving a proper response.
In light of this, the Supreme Court of Panama considered that the plaintiff’s right of access to information was breached and ordered the National Directorate of Agrarian Reform of the Ministry of Agricultural Development to deliver the information in due time and form as ordered by Law No. 6 of January 22, 2002.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
The decision expands the right to freedom of expression by being consistent with international human rights law standards regarding access to information. Through this ruling, the Supreme Court of Panama underscores the importance of responding to access to information requests promptly and without hindrances.
Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.
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