Access to information, such as the right to know, is the first pillar of the Aarhus Convention. As such, it directly links democracy and transparency with administration. Its principle establishes the right for every person to obtain official information that the public authorities have on the environment. Subsequently, no justification is required to make a request for information. Neither is there any need to be a Belgian citizen or resident in Belgium.
- What do we mean by 'environmental information'?
- Public request or public initiative
- Who should you ask?
- Can an authority refuse to inform the public?
What do we mean by 'environmental information'?
The expression “environmental information' covers numerous notions. As regards the content of this information, the public may freely request information on:
- the state of the environment and its elements: air, water, soil, the landscape, natural sites, etc.;
- biodiversity, including GMO;
- factors such as certain substances, energy, noise, radiation, dumping or discharges, etc., likely to have an effect on the environment;
- the plans, programmes, policies implemented, legislation, economic analyses, etc.;
- the state of human health, public safety, living conditions;
- the state of cultural sites and built structures likely to be affected by the state of the environment.
Concerning the form, the public can request written information (documents) as well as visual, auditive or electronic information. In any case, the information must exist on a material medium.
Public request or public authority initiative
The Convention aims at both active and passive publicity in relation to the environment.
- Passive publicity:
In this case, the public is the actor, i.e. the public requests specific information from a public authority. The latter is required to provide the information at the latest within one month (with the possibility of an extension if the request is complex and/or contains large volumes).
- Active publicity:
In this case, the authority spontaneously makes the information available to the public, in the form of easily accessible paper publications or a website.
The public may request information from any public authority, in other words:
- from administrative authorities (federal, regional, local, intercommunal, etc.);
- from any natural person or legal entity:
- occupying a post in public administration, especially in relation to the environment;
- or providing public services relating to the environment under the control of a body that is part of the two preceding categories.
Can an authority refuse to inform the public?
Authorities can refuse to make information available in certain cases mentioned in the Convention. The interpretation of reasons for refusal must however be strict and be for the benefit of public interest. Furthermore, the authority must justify its refusal, with the person requesting the information being able to appeal against this decision.
For more information on the various procedures applicable in Belgium, click on Implementation of the Convention in Belgium for the websites of the federal and regional governments.