Court claims family’s requests for government information is abuse of right

By Yuen Yeuk-laam Source:Global Times Published: 2015-3-16 20:28:01

Two chimney towers at a power plant in Nantong, Jiangsu Province are demolished by explosives in 2010. Photo: CFP

"I didn't know I could access so much government information until someone told me I have the right to request it and I started doing so," said Lu Hongxia, 37, from Nantong, Jiangsu Province.

Lu and her father Lu Fuguo, have asked the local authorities to disclose information around 100 times, and have filed over a dozen lawsuits against local government bodies since 2013.

All of the pair's lawsuits filed at a district court in Nantong were recently dismissed as the court decided that they had abused their right to request that the government disclose information and their right to file lawsuits.

This is the first time a court in China has made such a ruling since the country's Regulation on the Disclosure of Government Information came into force in 2008.

The right to know

According to the Gangzha district people's court in Nantong, the pair requested information on a variety of topics: the government's budget reports, the number of vehicles owned by the local government, their license information, the standards required for meals during detention and information related to the city's development projects.

The court said that as Lu Hongxia and her father's continuous requests were made regardless of government bodies' responses, the two simply aimed to pressure the local authorities, instead of seeking information legitimately.

Lu, however, told the Global Times that she does not agree with the court because she did not make these requests simply to harass the government.

She revealed that she made these requests to find out what exactly happened when the government demolished her father's house in 2007 and her house in 2012 for two separate city development projects, and what was the legal justification for the demolitions.

She said her father was forced to sign a blank sheet of paper which did not promise how much compensation he would receive for the loss of his home and that neither of them received any official documents from the local authorities before their houses were knocked down.

Although her father eventually received 80,000 yuan of government compensation, Lu was not given a penny because she is divorced and all the compensation was handed to her ex-husband's family instead.

"The government work in both cases was a mess which is why I want to know the details of the two development projects and if it was legitimate for the government to do what it did," she said.

"I did not mean to make so many requests but every time I sent out a request, the authorities either said the information could not be disclosed because it is not related to my interests, or they gave answers that were not what I asked for," she said, adding that sometimes the government did not even reply.

The district court, however, said Lu Hongxia knew that some of her requests were not within the scope of the government information disclosure policy but still requested the information.

A spokesperson for the Nantong city government also told the Global Times that they replied to all of the pairs' information requests, including those that they decided they could not fulfill.

Lu Hongxia is not the only one who has bombarded government bodies with requests for information.

Starting in 2008, a father and his son surnamed Fan, from Jiangsu Province, requested that the Ministry of Environmental Protection, the provincial government, the provincial environment department and Nantong city government disclose information more than 1,400 times after they reported a corporation for illicitly polluting, the Jianghai Evening Post, a newspaper based in Nantong, reported.

Since the policy aims to improve the transparency of government work and promote the rule of law, it does not set a limit on the number of requests an individual can make.

Increase in lawsuits and excuses

Over the nearly seven years that the policy has been in place, the number of applications for information being made has steadily grown, showing that the public has become increasingly interested in getting their hands on information about the government.

According to the Gangzha district court, the number of information disclosure requests received by the Nantong government increased over 600 percent from 789 applications in 2012 to 5,200 in 2014.

Although government bodies are permitted to extend the time they take to reply if they receive more requests than they can handle, analysts told the Global Times that many government bodies' efforts regarding the disclosure of information are still  unsatisfactory.

According to the Guangdong provincial high court, there were 379 lawsuits related to government information disclosure in 2014, a 39 percent increase compared to 2013, while 2013 saw a 73 percent increase compared to 2012, the Information Times, a newspaper based in Guangdong Province reported.

"Many local government bodies use different excuses to avoid disclosing specific information because they don't want their work to be supervised," Mo Shaoping, a lawyer based in Beijing, told the Global Times.

He Bing, vice president of the Law School of the China University of Political Science and Law, told the Global Times that although government transparency has improved since the policy became effective, some authorities are still reluctant to hand over information, particularly when it comes to land issues.

"This is indeed related to law enforcement," he said.

"If the courts could strictly execute their duties when they handle lawsuits and judge every case following government information disclosure regulations, government bodies will not reject information disclosure requests so easily," he said.

Government's role

Mo however argued that governments play a much bigger role in ensuring that information is properly disclosed because courts are not obligated to monitor the government but it is the responsibility of senior government bodies to supervise lower departments.

"If senior government departments could lead other departments to behave according to rule of law, the situation could be improved," he said.

According to the policy, as long as the information concerns the vital interests of citizens, should be widely known by the general public, or reflects the duties of the administrative organ, governments should disclose the information. If the authorities cannot disclose the information for any reason, they must provide the applicants with explanations.

"The key question is not whether it is possible to achieve a highly transparent government, but whether the authorities are willing to do it or not," Mo added.

Newspaper headline: Disrupting disclosure

Posted in: Law

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