In the wake of revelations that some officials at the Czech ministries of interior and education earned more in bonuses and other remuneration than Cabinet ministers, Prime Minister Petr Nečas’ (Civic Democrats, ODS) government is quietly moving to prevent such information from becoming public.
The Interior Ministry added a brief, unrelated amendment (a so-called “rider”) to the Law on Health Services that in principle undermines the Freedom of Information Act, stating, that it would become illegal to publish information about “salaries, bonuses and other such performance-related payments coming from public funds,” the business daily Hospodářské noviny (HN) reported on Tuesday.
The amended law has already passed through a first reading in the lower house of Parliament (the Chamber of Deputies) — without comment — but has yet to be discussed by MPs in relevant committees. The overwhelming majority of government offices and state organs already refuse to make public information about the remuneration of public employees.
Bonuses under fire
The news server Aktuálně.cz reported in late July that thanks to exceptionally high bonuses, ten senior officials in the Interior Ministry earned more on average per month in 2010 than did any Cabinet minister (at Kč 106,900 per month) with some earning more than Prime Minister Petr Nečas (Kč 150,400) and President Václav Klaus (Kč 186,700 per month).
Met by the steadfast refusal of the majority of 50 state administration offices the news server approached for information about officials’ non-salary earnings, Aktuálně.cz hired the office of renowned lawyer Tomáš Sokol, which it said is preparing a collective action against the state to make the information public.
‘It’s a dastardly business. Besides that, it’s unconstitutional. And the horrible thing is that it’s an attempt to keep it in the shadows.’
HN said Tuesday that the “crushing majority” of state offices refuse to disclose the salaries and bonuses awarded to staff — despite a judgment in June by the country’s Supreme Administrative Court (NSS) that it not be kept secret. “It’s a dastardly business,” Oldřich Kužílek, who helped draft freedom of information legislation, told the daily. “Besides that, it’s unconstitutional. And the horrible thing is that it’s an attempt to keep it in the shadows.”
The situation is not cut-and-dried as it might seems, however, as according to the Office for the Protection of Personal Data (ÚOOÚ) the disclosure of the salaries of employees in the public sphere runs counter to legislation on the protection of personal data.
Green Party (SZ) chairman Ondřej Liška, a former education minister, called the Interior Ministry’s rider a “scandalous attempt” indicative of how the current government (ODS-TOP 09-VV) has come to deal with citizens.
“In secret, in the shadows, they are trying to forbid oversight over how public resources are disposed of — although they are demanding citizens tighten their belts again and again,” Liška said, referring to the unpopular austerity measures aimed at trimming the state budget.
Interior Ministry spokesman Vladimír Řepka, meanwhile, says the amendment only serves to make the existing Freedom of Information Act more precise. “From our side, it is only a technical matter — a refining of the law,” he told HN. The director of the local branch of anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International, David Ondráčka, says the proposed amendment is an outrageous step backwards and has called upon MPs to cancel it.