With a judgment dated 25 June 2020, the Sofia-City Administrative Court (SCAC) revoked the silent refusal of the Minister of Health and ordered him to respond to the Anti-corruption Fund’s (ACF) request for access to two agreements signed with the Chinese National Pharmaceutical Foreign Trade Corporation for the supply of face masks and ventilators worth EUR 4.6 million.
“We welcome the judgment of the Administrative Court,” said Boyko Stankushev, Director of ACF. “We believe that only full transparency regarding the anti-COVID-19 measures adopted by the authorities can maintain and promote public trust.”
On 7 April 2020, ACF submitted a request to the Minister of Health under the Access to Public Information Act (APIA), asking for copies of the agreements for the supply of personal protective gear and medical equipment signed with Bulgarian and Chinese manufacturers in March 2020. ACF also requested information regarding the types of masks ordered from the Bulgarian and Chinese manufacturers, their specifications, delivery times and prices.
On 23 April 2020, the Minister of Health informed us via email that he did not possess the requested information concerning the agreements with the Bulgarian manufacturers and referred our request to the state-owned enterprise BUL BIO – NCZPB EOOD, which is 100% owned by the Ministry of Health.
The Minister completely ignored ACF’s request for copies of the agreements signed with the Chinese National Pharmaceutical Foreign Trade Corporation for the supply of face masks and ventilators totaling EUR 4.6 million. In essence, this constituted a silent refusal to a request for access to public information, which is a violation of APIA.
In the meantime, media publications from the end of April / beginning of May revealed that only 1/3 of the paid-for face masks were received within the agreed timeline. There was no information that any ventilators had been received.
On 12 May 2020, the Anti-corruption Fund appealed the Minister of Health’s silent refusal before SSAC. At the end of June, the court held that ACF’s appeal was well-founded and repealed the silent refusal. The court accepted ACF’s argument that the Minister was legally obliged to issue an explicit decision on the received request for access to public information. The court emphasized the importance of the right to information as part of the constitutional right to freedom of expression, a fundamental principle in every democratic society and one of the basic conditions for its progress and for the development of every individual. Due to this nature of the right to access to information, the court ruled that any information pertaining to public decision-making should be available to all Bulgarian citizens who would like to receive it.
The decision further states that “the court agrees with the arguments of the claimant (ACF) related to both the nature of the requested information and the existence of the legal prerequisites under APIA. The public trust in institutions and in the adequacy of the decisions and measures adopted by the authorities is crucial for succeeding in the efforts to control the COVID-19 pandemic. It is in the public interest that people be provided with detailed and up-to-date information in this context, as this will ensure transparency in public expenditure and accountability of the obliged subjects.”
The court’s judgment is final and cannot be appealed.
To date, the Minister of Health has still not complied with the final judgment of the court in spite of our explicit invitation to this effect.