Just weeks after appalling conditions were revealed at Norwegian fur farms, the civil ombudsman wants to restrict access to information in cases concerning animal abuse. The proposal has sparked debate among those more concerned with maintaining openness.
The ombudsman argues that animal abuse cases often are linked to personal problems and therefore not subject to Norway’s public information act (offentlighetsloven). Even state regulators, though, worry that attempts to cover up animal abuse would conflict with public demands for transparency.
Changes recommended by the ombudsman and reported recently by newspaper Aftenposten include characterizing cases of animal abuse as being of a private nature, thus restricting the Norwegian Food Safety Authority, the state regulatory agency in charge of animal welfare (Mattilsynet), from releasing any information that might describe a situation in too much detail, or reveal information about potential criminal prosecution. Documents that are likely to identify individuals will be stricken from the public record, and even cases of abuse within commercial outlets would be privileged if the information can be linked to a specific individual.
The suggestion intended to protect private persons has renewed debate around the local fur industry and mistreatment of animals.
Some argue that the new restrictions on Mattilsynet and the ombudsman’s interpretation of the privacy privilege conflict with the demand for transparency in public matters, as stipulated in the public information act. Live Kleveland, legal counsel for the Norwegian Animal Protection Alliance (Dyrevernalliansen), told Aftenposten that she believes new restrictions on information will extinguish all debate and progress on the issue of animal welfare. “Animal abuse is not a private matter,” she says. “I don’t believe the ombudsman has considered this matter sufficiently.”
The civil ombudsman has admonished Mattilsynet several times for breach of privacy privilege, most recently in connection with releasing graphic images and descriptions of the hotly debated fur industry. Annette Dahl, of the office of the ombudsman, argues that any debate must occur on a more general level, without reference to specific situations or individuals. “I don’t see how it would be of huge detriment to the public debate on animal protection, that Mattilsynet follows the rules and regulations on privacy privilege,” she told Aftenposten.
The Norwegian civil ombudsman is mandated to protect the public from government transgressions, and will act on and investigate matters brought to the office’s attention, in an attempt to prevent intrusions against the individual citizen. Many farmers have argued that leaked information and allegations are a real concern in the industry.
Governmental bodies are expected to follow the ombudsman’s recommendations, but are not legally required to do so. Kari Bryhni, managing director for Mattilsynet, told Aftenposten that staff will be expected to follow any new regulations.
Ole Fjetland, assistant overseer for Mattilsynet, held a meeting with animal rights activists last month where he characterized the new restrictions as an attempt to protect private persons. Animal rights advocates like Kleveland, however, remain concerned, calling the new restrictions “dramatic.”