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Everyone’s right to information

Do you have any questions about your environment or the planet? * Access to information about the environment is now a right * What information? * Who is it for? * Public authorities must make available two main types of information * "Passive" information - responding to written requests and questions * And for DG Environment? * "Active" information - collecting and disseminating essential information * And for DG Environment? * Many issues and challenges 

 

Do you have any questions about your environment or the planet?

Do you ever wonder what is happening to the hole in the ozone layer? Would you like to know what Belgium has done to combat climate change? What is being done to protect certain endangered animal and plant species, and biodiversity? Are chemicals harmful to the environment or health? What about genetically modified organisms? Would you like information on environmentally friendly products? Would you like to know how and on what basis insecticides for home use are approved or banned? Or how these products are monitored? Would you like to know what rules govern how certain products are put on the market, and learn about the relevant legislation? Or find out how it is possible to assess the short and long-term impact of different types of pollution on human health?

These, and many more questions, are asked by the public on a regular basis, and increasingly in recent years. Hardly a day goes by without the media covering some environment-related issue or other. Moreover, over the past few years, surveys have shown that the environment is one of the main concerns - often among the top three - of Belgian and European citizens.

 

Access to information about the environment is now a right

The public authorities have a lot of information on the environment, especially the administrations responsible for managing environmental issues, quality of life, public health, land planning, and so on.

This information is important to help everyone to make choices, whether they be political, societal (for example when planning energy or transport policy), or individual choices.

Nonetheless, questions concerning the environment and the relations between the environment and human health (HTML) are extremely complex – the public authorities do not yet have all the answers, and do not have all the information by any means. Nonetheless, each one of us can in principle have access to any information held by the public authorities.

 

What information?

The Aarhus Convention (HTML) (see also in Glossary: Aarhus Convention) and EU Directive 2003/4/EC (WEB) define in detail what is covered by the term "environmental information". In sum, it is information on:

- the state of the elements of the environment, such as air and atmosphere, water, soil, land, landscape and natural sites including wetlands, coastal and marine areas, biological diversity and its components, including genetically modified organisms;
- factors, such as chemicals, energy, noise, radiation or waste, including radioactive waste, emissions, discharges and other releases into the environment, affecting or liable to affect the elements of the environment;
- measures (including administrative measures), such as policies, legislation, plans, programmes, environmental agreements, and activities affecting or liable to affect the environment as well as measures or activities designed to protect those elements such as policies, legislation, plans and programmes, environmental agreements, and other activities;
- human health and safety, including any contamination of the food chain, conditions of human life, inasmuch as they are or may be affected by the state of the elements of the environment, or by one of the factors, measures or activities covered in the previous points.

As you can see, this is a long list, and gives a large number of examples yet is by no means exhaustive. Moreover, this information may be available in written, visual, aural, electronic or any other physical form.

 

Who is it for?

The right of access to environmental information is a universal one that everyone (individuals, groups of citizens, associations, companies, etc…) can exercise, without having to justify their reasons for requesting such information.

Anyone can therefore approach a public administration (national, federal, regional or local) and request any information it may have concerning the environment.

 

Public authorities must make available two main types of information

The Aarhus Convention and EU Directive 2003/4/EC state that the public authorities must make available two "types" of public information channels to allow everyone easy access to all information and official documents concerning the environment.

- Firstly, administrations must respond to any requests made. This is known as "passive" information.
- In addition to this, they must provide a certain amount of basic essential public information, preferably using electronic means (for example through websites). This is called "active" information.

 

"Passive" information - responding to written requests and questions

In 1990, a first EU Directive was adopted (90/313/CEE (WEB)) concerning freedom of access to environmental information. It made a significant contribution to making public authorities much more open and transparent to citizens on environmental issues, by ensuring public access - within certain limits - to a lot of environmental information. It provided for obligations for the public authorities in terms of passive information only.

This Directive was transposed in Belgium and today access to information on the environment is regulated at federal level by the law of 11 April 1994 on publications by the administration (now amended by the law of 26 June of 2000 (FR/NL) (.PDF).

Since then, Directive 2003/4/EC on public access to environmental information has recently replaced the previous one. It is more precise, and goes further than the first Directive by incorporating the provisions of the Aarhus Convention. It must be transposed and implemented in the Member States by 25 February 2005. The law of 11 April 1994 on publications by the administration is currently being amended to take account of this.

Both the Convention and the Directive make specific provisions to ensure that the system can work effectively. They include the following:

- the form of the request, which must be made in writing (post or e-mail) to the administration.
- the deadlines by which the information must be sent: within one month of the receipt of the request or, when the information is very complex or there is a lot of it, within two months of the receipt of the request.
- the cases in which a request for information may be refused. Generally speaking, however, information is to be provided although there are certain limits to this transparency, and certain exceptions are envisaged.
· A request that is too general or abusive may be refused, but the public authority must first invite the applicant to clarify their request.
· Other requests could concern more delicate matters, such as international relations, national security, confidentiality of public procedures, commercial secrecy covered by law, personal data, or may refer to documents still being drafted, or incomplete, or to internal communications. These do not have to be communicated. It will then be up to the administrations to weigh up the interests on a case-by-case basis to assess what best serves the public interest, and only refuse to give out certain information when the public interest would best be served by maintaining confidentiality.
· Information concerning the exercise of judicial and legislative powers is considered to be outside the scope of the Convention.
· Whenever information is refused, the applicant must be given a reason why.

- the procedure to be followed when the public authority does not have the requested information. If it knows that the requested information is held by another public authority, it will either send on the request to that other public authority and inform the applicant, or it will refer the applicant directly to the other public authority.

- the implementation of administrative review procedures (HTML) for applicants who consider that their request for information has been ignored, unduly rejected, or has not been treated correctly.

 

And for DG Environment?

Naturally, as it is most directly concerned, DG Environment receives a large number of requests for information on the subjects it deals with, and responds to these.

Moreover, it has already made major efforts to improve and better organise public access to the environment-related information that it holds.

To obtain a copy of any document or information held by DG Environment concerning the environment (see chapter What information?), please apply in writing:
- by post:
Federal Public Service for Public Health, Food-Chain Safety and Environment
DG Environment
Communication-Information Service
Place Victor Horta, 40, box 10
B-1060 Brussels
- by fax: +32 2 524 96 00
- or by e-mail:
environment@health.fgov.be

This procedure will be clarified over the coming months, once the new law on publications by the administration comes into force. 



"Active" information - collecting and disseminating essential information

Administrations may not merely respond passively to requests. They must also collect all environmental information that could be useful to citizens and make it accessible, literally and figuratively, particularly using electronic means, and not only in response to requests. This is called "active" information.

"Active information" does not mean actively giving out all the information held by the public authorities, but rather information considered to be essential for the public, namely:

- basic information for understanding the phenomena and measures implemented (texts of international treaties and conventions, federal, regional and local legislation, policies, plans and programmes, implementation and follow-up reports, data or summaries of data collected, etc.)
- in addition to this, any necessary information that may be required in the event of an imminent threat to the environment or human health, to allow the public to take measures to prevent or limit the damage linked to a particular threat.

The Aarhus Convention and the Directive consider that IT and communications technologies (websites, e-newsletters, and so on) are currently the most appropriate media for transmitting this information rapidly to a large number of people.

 

And for DG Environment?

Clearly, the development of the Internet is extremely appropriate in this field. This is what has led many public administrations, including DG Environment, to set up one or more sites to disseminate specific information on the subjects that they deal with.

Moreover, DG Environment, either alone or in cooperation with other organisations concerned, is also developing specific web sites for activities on certain subjects such as:
- the climate and climate change: www.climat.be (WEB)
This site concerns the Kyoto Protocol and gives the latest information on its implementation in Belgium. Practical tips for citizens are also provided there.
- the "environment-health" issue and the National Environment and Health Action Plan (NEHAP): www.nehap.be (WEB).
This site provides information on the Environment Health Plan implemented in Belgium as well as on projects carried out by the public authorities and NGOs.
- the European eco-label: www.ecolabel.be (WEB)
This site deals with the European ecological label and the products that have been awarded this label.
- the sustainable management of the North Sea: www.de-noordzee.be (WEB).
This site describes the wealth of natural resources and the many activities conducted in the North Sea. A North Sea management plan should make it possible to manage economic activities and environmental protection in a coordinated way.

Of course, not everyone has access to the information on the Internet. As a result, DG Environment also disseminates information in publications, brochures, fliers and so on, to reach the widest possible audience.

 

Many issues and challenges

All in all, the aims and practical provisions of the Aarhus Convention and the EU Directive on public access to environmental information seem quite simple and logical. However, they do not reveal the challenges and practical difficulties for ensuring effective implementation, especially in Belgium where environmental responsibilities are divided between several levels of administration.

It is therefore a good idea to give the general public a clear idea of "where and how" to find the information that has been made available. In fact, nearly three quarters of the requests for information reaching DG Environment do concern matters that are the responsibility of the regions, to which requests for information must be redirected. (see also CCIEP administrations (HTML))

Last, but by no means least, the public authorities face the challenge of obtaining sufficient human and financial resources to respond to requests from the public and ensure a regular follow-up of the dissemination of information.

DG Environment's Citizenship and Environment team, in close cooperation with the SPF's Communication Team, is therefore used not only for transposing texts into national law. It also ensures the effective implementation of the right of access to environmental information on a daily basis.

See also the following fact sheets:

Aarhus – Rights for the public (HTML)

Aarhus – The right to take part in decisions that have an impact on the environment (HTML)

Aarhus – Access to justice for protecting environmental rights (HTML)