Governments often "obstruct" requests for information on a large scale: report
Portions of governmental offices in the Netherlands commit “large-scale obstruction” to not make information public in appeals to the Open Government Act (WOB requests), said Ben van Hoek in an interview with NRC. Van Hoek, who managed these requests for information at the police until April, said this can happen at the municipal level, but also at national offices. He mentioned several examples in which various government offices tried to hide or destroy information requested by the media.
Van Hoek experienced open discussions at Ministries and municipalities about how frustrating they found WOB requests and “losing” sensitive information.
He first experienced this when consulting with the Ministry of Justice and Security in 2018 on a WOB request submitted by RTL Nieuws for information about the downing of flight MH17. “These were documents that were present at various ministries and the police - that’s why I was at that meeting,” Van Hoek said to the newspaper. “It was clear that many documents had not been provided. A top official from the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management made clear during the meeting that we should not look for more documents. All this stays, he said.”
Another example also involves an RTL Nieuws request in 2019 about the New Year’s bonfires in Scheveningen that got out of hand and nearly burned the town down. The Hague police unit found a document incriminating then-mayor Pauline Krikke. It stated that she should have known the bonfire could get out of hand. Van Hoek was called in to resolve the situation between the police and the municipality of The Hauge.
“During that meeting, one of the officials suggested pretending the document didn’t exist. ‘You don’t have to say you have that document, do you?’ he said. I then made it clear to him that we don’t work like that. That a senior official proposed that says a lot about the culture there.” Van Hoek advised the police to publish the document in question but was not involved further in the WOB request. Later it turned out that the police chief in The Hague had deleted all his texts about the bonfires. Krikke resigned in the fall of 2019 because of her role in the near-disaster.
More recently, Rotterdam withheld a report from the Dutch Data Protection Authority (AP) stating that the municipality violated privacy laws by having municipal cars record people ignoring social distancing and lockdown rules during the coronavirus pandemic. The AP wanted to publish the outcome of its investigation at the end of last year to warn other municipalities that were planning similar surveillance. But after consultation with Rotterdam mayor Ahmed Aboutaleb, the police did not grant permission for early publication.
“Aboutaleb tried to delay the investigation,” Van Hoek said. “In a meeting with the police, he said that the report's publication should be delayed beyond the election.” That is, the municipal elections held in March this year. According to Van Hoek, this shows how municipal authorities deal with transparency. “Preventing a publication because it is not convenient for the election is not a motive that fits within a well-functioning democracy.”
Van Hoek said that the Dutch government does not comply with its transparency rules. Take Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s recent comments about him deleting his text messages every day for years. “Some may have been private, but there were guaranteed to be messages about political decision-making. Even if such a text only shows that the Prime Minister was informed about an issue, that information must be kept according to the law.” According to him, Rutte hereby normalizes the obstruction of this law. “It is disastrous for the trust in the government.”