Access to information
Content of the Convention
Access to Information
The information pillar covers both the 'passive' or reactive aspect of access to information, i.e. the obligation on public authorities to respond to public requests for information, and the 'active' aspect dealing with other obligations relating to providing environmental information, such as collection, updating, public dissemination and so on.
The reactive aspect is addressed in article 4, which contains the main essential elements of a system for securing the public's right to obtain information on request from public authorities:
Presumption in favour of access: Any environmental information held by a public authority must be provided when requested by a member of the public, unless it can be shown to fall within a finite list of exempt categories.
'Any person' right: the right of access extends to any person, without his or her having to prove or state an interest or a reason for requesting the information.
Broad definition of 'environmental information': the scope of information covered is quite broad, encompassing a non-exhaustive list of elements of the environment (air, water, soil etc.); factors, activities or measures affecting those elements; and human health and safety, conditions of life, cultural sites and built structures, to the extent that these are or may be affected by the aforementioned elements, factors, activities or measures.
Time limits: The information must be provided as soon as possible, and at the latest within one month after submission of the request. However, this period may be extended by a further month where the volume and complexity of the
information justify this. The requester must be notified of any such extension and the reasons for it.
Form of information: The definition of environmental information covers information in any material form (written, visual, aural, electronic etc). There is a qualified requirement on public authorities to provide it in the form specified by the requester.
Charges: Public authorities may impose a charge for supplying information provided the charge does not exceed a 'reasonable' amount.
Exemptions: Public authorities may withhold information where disclosure would adversely affect various interests, e.g. national defence, international relations, public security, the course of justice, commercial confidentiality, intellectual property rights, personal privacy, the confidentiality of the proceedings of public authorities; or where the information requested has been supplied voluntarily or consists of internal communications or material in the course of completion.
There are however some restrictions on these exemptions, e.g. the commercial confidentiality exemption may not be invoked to withhold information on emissions which is relevant for the protection of the environment.
Public interest test: To prevent abuse of the exemptions by over-secretive public authorities, the Convention stipulates that the aforementioned exemptions are to be interpreted in a restrictive way, and in all cases may only be applied when the public interest served by disclosure has been taken into account.
Refusals: Refusals, and the reasons for them, are to be issued in writing where requested. A similar time limit applies as for the supply of information: one month from the date of the request, with provision for extending this by a further month where the complexity of the information justifies this.
Onward referral of requests: Where a public authority does not hold the information requested, it should either direct the requester to another public authority which it believes might have the information, or transfer the request to that public authority and notify the requester of this.
The Convention also imposes active information duties on Parties. These include quite general obligations on public authorities to be in possession of up to date environmental information which is relevant to their functions, and to make information 'efffectively accessible' to the public by providing information on the type and scope of information held and the process by which it can be obtained.
The Convention also contains several more specific provisions:
Internet access: Parties are required to 'progressively' make environmental information publicly available in electronic databases which can easily be accessed through public telecommunications networks.
The Convention specifies certain categories of information (e.g. state of the environment reports, texts of legislation related to the environment) which should be made available in this form.
The Parties adopted non-binding Recommendations on the More Effective Use of Electronic Information Tools to Provide Public Access to Environmental Information at their second ordinary meeting (Almaty, Kazakhstan, 25-27 May 2005) to provide guidance on implementation of the above provisions.
State-of-the-environment reporting: Parties are required to produce national reports on the state of the environment at regular intervals not exceeding four years.
Pollutant release and transfer registers (PRTRs): PRTRs have proven to be a highly effective and relatively low cost means of gathering environmental information from the private sector and putting it into the public domain, thereby exerting a downward pressure on levels of pollution.
However, very few countries in the region have established PRTRs. The Convention requires Parties to take steps to progressively establish such registers.
Emergency situations: Public authorities are required to immediately provide the public with all information in their possession which could enable the public to take measures to prevent or mitigate harm arising from an imminent threat to human health or the environment.
For more on the content of the Aarhus Convention, please refer to the Implementation Guide.