Published 27th September 2012 on the European Journalism Centre magazine. Author: Alessia Cerantola
In many countries, access to public information is guaranteed by law. Often at the constitutional level.
Not in Italy.
Two-year Waiting Period
When Focus magazine decided to release a special issue on the quality of Italian hospitals, its journalists knew they faced an uphill battle to obtain records on patients’ hospitalization from the Ministry of Health.
Focus journalists drew inspiration from a similar report already published by the Guardian; UK journalists had obtained the same data through a request using their Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). With the assistance of administrative lawyers, Focus’s staff made a request similar to the one their UK colleagues made, in accordance with Italian legislation in 2010. Years and denials later, they finally got possession of the data only through “other means,” namely whistleblowers. The resulting report was finally published this summer.
“If we had to sue the minister, the guarantor, the administrative court and then the EU, it’d have taken years, and the lawyers and bureaucracy costs would have amounted to nearly 10,000 euro. Nobody wants to spend this money for old data,” said Amelia Beltramini, news editor of Focus.
“Our case demonstrated that even if you submit a regular request, all that (public servants) do is forward the request to other offices, keep procrastinating or deny the existence of the data itself.”
Sometimes it is a matter of persistence. In the case of Bloomberg News, it took two years to get access to the documents and municipal filings concerning a settlement between the city of Cassino and JP Morgan. Bloomberg made its first request directly to Cassino’s administration in February 2010. After several denials, it went on to the regional ombudsman first and then all the way up to the administrative court. Bloomberg was able to publish the resulting article in April 2012.
“Our Cassino ruling showed what can be achieved using existing laws”, said Bloomberg reporter Elisa Martinuzzi. “We were originally told the documents were private because of a confidentiality clause in the contracts, but we didn’t desist. The lack of transparency should be an opportunity for journalists.”