Belgian site promotes use of information laws


Requesting documents from the government often leads to exclusive stories with maximum impact. Document-based reporting frees journalists from reliance on civil servants for information.

“You can be source dependent or source independent,” Danish media lawyer Henriette Schjøth, said at a mid-October kickoff for the website

The site, available in Dutch and English, gives an overview of transparency legislation in the 27 member states of the European Union. It also tracks the development of a European Union policy on freedom of information.

In the Netherlands, about 1,000 requests under the freedom of information act are filed each year, Dutch media lawyer Roger Vleugels says.

Not bad, considering that in Belgium and France, about 25 requests are made each year.


The Washington Post Company makes around 2,000 requests each year, Vleugels adds.

“Post reporters make federal FOIA requests and requests under state open records laws on a routine basis in the course of their newsgathering,” Post lawyer Eric Lieberman said via e-mail. 

There are fewer differences in FOI laws from country to country than in how often the laws are utilised, Vleugels and Schjøth say.

It is up to journalists to create a strong culture of exercising the legal rights afforded under freedom of information acts.

“If you don’t use these rules or rights of getting access to parliamentary documents you will never be able to change the administrative culture within authorities,” Schjøth says. “It is only from outside pressure that these cultures truly change. They will not do it by themselves. That is for certain.”

Brigitte Alfter, a Brussels correspondent for a Danish daily newspaper who helped start, likens FOI laws to a well-crafted violin.

“If it is not played, it will lose its tone,” she told about 40 people who gathered at the Résidence Palace to mark the launch of the site. “If these laws are not used, they will lose their quality, they will lose their bite.”

Freelance journalist Marleen Teugels, who also spoke in Brussels, is one of the first Belgian journalists to take advantage of the freedom of information act in that country.

In 2005, a colleague from the Wall Street Journal asked Teugels to explain how the law works in Belgium.

“I found it very difficult to restrain myself form saying, ‘Freedom of information act, what on earth is that, we don’t have anything like that in Belgium,’” she recounts. “Luckily enough I managed to keep myself under control because my initial reaction was of course not correct.”

Teugels requested information about Belgian farm subsidies on a Flemish and federal level. Her reporting led to several front-page stories.

She and Alfter are both part of, a collaborative effort to force governmental transparency about who benefits from the Common Agricultural Policy.

Journalists who use the freedom of information act to procure information should share their findings with each other to expose the bigger picture, Teugels and Alfter say. Networking can also help when it comes to the process of requesting information – and following up with those requests.

“We can see from the exhibiting projects where we have networked that we have had very similar experiences,” Alfter says. “We get the same problems, we get the same questions, we have the same strategies and we have the same considerations.”

The difficulty of following up with FOI requests – many of which are initially denied – often produce a chilling effect. In the Netherlands, the first decision can take up to 2 months, the first appeal between 3-4 months and court rulings another year, Vleugels says.

This presents deadline-driven journalists with an obvious problem. Still, requests are usually fruitful. In the Netherlands, about 15 percent of requests meet with instant success. The success rate jumps to 35 percent after an administrative appeal and 65 percent after a court appeal. If the request makes it to a high court appeal, there is a 75 percent chance it will be granted.