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Sunday, June 16, 2024

Justice minister failed in her effort to restrict government openness

Norway’s government minister in charge of justice and preparedness, Emilie Enger Mehl, chose one of the busiest political weeks of the year to quietly withdraw a proposal to rein in laws governing openness. Her effort to restrict Norway’s equivalent of the US’ Freedom of Information Act set off a storm of protests, not least from the media.

Justice Minister Emilie Enger Mehl of the Center Party ran into massive opposition over her proposal to tighten Norway’s law regarding access to information and government documents. PHOTO: Justis departementet/Rune Kongsro

Mehl and her colleagues in the country’s already-troubled Labour Center government coalition had sought to limit access to various government documents. It specifically proposed to allow “exceptions” to rules that demand recording and archiving of all documents related to public management.

The so-called “changes” in the public’s rights and access to information sparked thousands of objections and fully 3,400 responses when it was put out to hearing before the summer holidays. If Mehl had prevailed, government officials would no longer need to archive all internal documents, making it difficult to review government processes.

“I think the proposal was incredible,” Anja Jergel Vestvold, leader of Norway’s own archive council, told newspaper Aftenposten after reading Mehl’s proposed change in the public access law. “I could hardly believe what I was reading.”

A unified press corps was quick to sound the alarms, with several editors saying Mehl’s proposal would make it difficult if not impossible to conduct investigative journalism. Politicians’ exploitation of commuter and housing benefits and scandals at state welfare agency NAV would never have come to light if internal government documents weren’t archived and made available to the public.

The media was far from alone in criticizing Mehl’s proposal on behalf of the Left-Center government. A unified opposition in Parliament, major labour and employer organizations, academics, the Norwegian Bar Association and human rights advocates were also among those objecting loudly and urging Mehl to drop the proposed changes. By August the complaints were so loud that Mehl found herself in a hopeless situation: “It’s seldom that so many have been so critical towards a proposed law,” wrote Aftenposten.

Mehl chose a week in which Norway remains caught in political drama around recent election results, the unpopularity of the government parties and more conflicts of interest now also involving former prime minister Erna Solberg to withdraw the proposal. Far too many had found it totally at odds with the intent of public access.

“We have listened to the reaction, and based on that the government sees no reason to go further with the case,” stated Mehl. She claimed both her own Center Party and the Labour Party, which leads their coalition government, “think it’s important to hail democracy and transparency.”

Critics were relieved but not entirely satisfied, with Greens Party leader Arild Hermstad noting that the proposal alone suggested otherwise. “The fact that they (Center and Labour) even proposed less insight and openness is unsettling. I think it’s been very unfortunate from Mehl’s and (Prime Minister Jonas Gahr) Støre’s side,” Hermstad told news bureau NTB, suggesting both should apologize for the uproar they created. Berglund



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