Freedom of Information
Freedom of information (FOI) is the constitutional right of free access to official information. It is one of the most important and fundamental rights in the knowledge economy, which results from Article 5 of the German Basic Law on Freedom of Opinion and Information.
Access to knowledge gives citizens the power to act in an informed and self-determined manner. Knowledge is power and through freedom of information, this power is spread to the public instead of being concentrated in the hands of the few.
Freedom of information allows oversight of political processes. It can prevent corruption and increase accountability of politicians and public servants. The free flow of official information strengthens and enlivens a democracy as it makes participation possible – only those who have insight into the making of collectively binding decisions can influence them effectively.
Status Quo in Germany
Since the Federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) does not apply to state and local authorities, all federal states regulate the information laws themselves within their sphere of influence. A confusing “three-class system” has established itself over the last few years: states without FOIA, states with FOIA, and states with a transparency law that supplements the duty of authorities to reactively provide information with a duty to proactively publish important government documents. Compared to other countries, Germany is lagging behind; with the exception of Austria and Belarus, citizens in all other European countries have the right of access to official information.
Nevertheless, even in states without FOIAs, there are possibilities to extract information from public authorities. Authorities throughout Germany have to provide information related to environmental and consumer information. This is regulated by the Environmental Information Act (UIG) and the Consumer Information Act (VIG). Typical UIG enquiries are, for example, about airport documents, noise measurements, CO2 data, expert opinions on the environmental impact of construction projects and public transport. Typical VIG enquiries deal with the results of hygiene checks, for example at public festivals and Christmas markets or food controls in restaurants. Inquiries about the VIG are also generally free of charge with an administrative cost capped at 250 euros. The cap is at 1000 euros for inquiries about violations of the law. FOI enquiries are generally free of charge, but federal authorities, for example, can charge up to €500 for increased expenditure.