Illustration: Taras Sainyuk / UNDP Ukraine

Access to public information is one of the constitutional rights of Ukrainian citizens. However, often they have to appeal to the Human Rights Commissioner to exercise it.

Securing access to public information is the thing that Valentyna Veltsen, the Regional Representative of the Ombudsperson Office in Kharkiv Oblast supported by a UNDP project, likes most about her job. She smiles ironically as she explains that every story begins the same way: just like in a film, public information officials argue at first, but then admit their mistake and agree to provide the information.

Nevertheless, Ms. Veltsen notes that often applicants overuse their right of access to information. There is often a fine line between a lack of access to information and overindulging in the right to access. However, equipped with legal knowledge and a bit of savvy and patience, you can still find a solution to any problem.

For instance, the Main Department of the State Service of Ukraine for Geodesy, Cartography, and Land Registry in Kharkiv Oblast refused to provide the information requested by Olena Filimonova. Ms. Filimonova submitted a complaint to the Commissioner, and Ms. Veltsen took on the case. She immediately paid a visit to the office in question.

“It is about 9 a.m. The management is sitting behind metal doors. A duty officer is keeping the doors shut, not hiding his shock at seeing me there. He tells a secretary. Everyone is scared, and they are afraid to say a single word because it may entail liability…” the human rights defender recalls.

Ms. Veltsen visited the Main Department several times and sent a written request “to raise the profile” of the case. Silence was the only response.

Then she called the state service’s hotline in Kyiv, requested that the Head of its Main Department in Kharkiv Oblast get in touch with her, and suggested a date and time for the meeting.

“It had an effect,” the commissioner’s representative smiles.

Ms. Veltsen invited Olena Filimonova to this meeting.

“The applicant only wanted to receive some information. When she got it, she withdrew her complaint against the Main Department,” Ms. Veltsen adds.

The same thing happened at the Tax Inspection Office in Kharkiv Oblast, which refused to provide public information at the request of Yevhen Rybalko, and at Kharkiv Clinical Hospital of the South Railway Company, which violated Artem Tesliuk’s right of access to information.

“What do we have to do to avoid disciplinary action? This is the most common question that information managers ask me… I have to constantly interpret the legal provisions for them…” Ms. Veltsen states.

These authorities did provide all the requested information, and the applicants Yevhen Rybalko and Artem Tesliuk withdrew their complaints.

“We did not produce disciplinary protocols this time. You see, we also have happy endings,” Ms. Veltsen smiles and adds, “I hope my adventures will inspire others to get to know the law on access to public information. This is actually a viable tool for protecting your rights.”

Civic Regional Human Rights Coordinators assist the Ombudsperson Office under the Strengthening Capacities of the Office of the Ombudsperson project, implemented by the United Nations Development Programme in Ukraine with financial support from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark between 2015-2018.

Written by Valentyna Veltsen, edited by Iryna Virtosu

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