The Secret Policeman’s Fall

As Hungary’s Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany found out when a recorded admission that his government was lying incited riots, openness in government doesn’t come easily in Eastern Europe’s new democracies. Like Hungary, post-communist Romania has struggled to increase transparency and honesty in what was once one of the world’s most closed societies. As we struggled, continued secrecy allowed an explosion of corruption and abuse of office.

But there has, at last, been real movement towards openness – progress recognized by the European Union when it gave Romania the green light to join the European Union at the beginning of 2007. Aside from achieving what the EU now deems a “functioning market economy,” key political and legal changes, which I have overseen as Minister of Justice, range from increased transparency and control in the funding of political parties to a shakeup of the judiciary.

Judicial reforms are, in turn, helping to root out corruption. Indictments have been issued against former and current cabinet ministers, members of parliament, judges, prosecutors, lawyers, police and customs officers, and other public officials, as well as directors of private companies. In addition, new standardized forms have been introduced for declarations of assets and financial interests by anyone who holds an official position in government, parliament, public and local administration, and the judicial system. The new declarations are the most detailed in Europe, and, more importantly, they are published.

Romania’s progress is confirmed in a report released earlier this month showing that citizens’ access to government information in Eastern Europe is now equal to that in established democracies. Indeed, the report, Transparency and Silence, conducted by the Open Society Justice Initiative (available at www.justiceinitiative.org), indicates that in some ways the new democracies have something to teach the old: certain government agencies in Romania were more responsive to citizen requests for information than comparable agencies in France and Spain. Specifically, 60% of the requests filed in Romania met, compared to 31% in France and 24% in Spain. Other countries that performed well include Peru and Mexico, both of which adopted freedom of information laws in 2002, shortly after Romania.