Public institutions and officials should be barred from blocking citizens on Facebook
This is a translated version of an article originally published in Romanian on March 13.
Transparency and access to information are fundamental elements in a democratically run society. Citizens have the right to be informed about the government's activity and regarding public expenditure.
Today, an increasing number of communication opportunities is available to the government in order to communicate with the citizens and to make information of public interest available. Although the online presence of public institutions and officials is increasing, especially on social media, these entities do not seem to be aware of their obligations to the public.
Soroca v. access to information
In 2019, Soroca City Hall blocked the access of Vadim Șterbate, an "Observatorul de Nord" reporter, to the institution's Facebook page. The journalist reported on a regular basis on the city hall's activity. Șterbate sued the municipality, asking the court to restore his access and to find Soroca City Hall guilty of violation of his right of access to public interest information .
Șterbate argued in front of the court that the primsoroca.md website is rarely updated and that relevant information regarding the town hall activity can only be found on the Facebook page. Secondly, the page is maintained by civil servants during working hours, in offices and at computers paid for by public funds. Last but not least, Article 34 of the Constitution of Moldova states that the right of a person to have access to any kind of information of public interest shall not be curtailed .
The Court of Soroca rejected the claim as unfounded . Go figure. Following the refusal, the reporter appealed at the Bălți Court of Appeal.
Vadim Șterbate is a pioneer in the fight for online access. According to the executive director of the Independent Press Association, Petru Macovei, the number of journalists with restricted access to public interest information sources is increasing. According to Petru Macovei, it is important for the higher courts to rule on this case, to ascertain the violation committed by the Soroca City Hall and thus establish a legal precedent.
Social media petty dictators
President Igor Dodon has a Facebook page, which currently has about 144,000 followers. On this page, Mr. Dodon publishes information about his activity as head of state, sends messages to other politicians or political groups, conveys his perspective on national political events and congratulates citizens on the occasion of national and religious holidays.
Prime Minister Ion Chicu uses a Facebook profile that is followed by 2,250 subscribers. On this platform, the prime minister posts government agenda meeting items, activity reports and pictures with children. Although he uses a profile, Prime Minister Chicu mostly distributes information of public interest. In addition, he uses a Facebook page, which also regularly publishes content of public interest. The difference between a "profile" and a "page" is explained below.
Vitalie Dragancea, the prime minister's adviser, has almost 2000 friends on Facebook. His popularity is likely to increase due to a recent interaction with Ziarul de Gardă . Some of his posts are of public interest.
The Soroca City Hall Facebook page solely contains public interest information and is followed by 654 people. For the residents of Soroca, this account is a better source of information than the city hall's web page.
The issue is that high ranking officials and public institutions behave on these accounts as we, ordinary citizens, behave on ours, namely as petty dictators. For example, these pages and profiles have the bad habit of blocking user access. The block of a user from a profile is total. Once the user is blocked, he or she can no longer access the information related to the profile in question and can no longer tag the account in other posts. In case of blocks from pages, the restriction partially limits access to the account, blocking certain functions such as commenting, tagging, liking and so on.
Of the 4 accounts listed above, 3 represent confirmed cases of user access restrictions. President Igor Dodon (or the team that manages his page) is notorious for blocking his critics. Adviser Vitalie Dragancea blocked the commentator Andrei Bolocan after the latter reviewed the disgraceful discussion between the former and Ziarul de Gardă. By restricting the access of Vadim Șterbate and, by extension, of the readers of the "Observatorului de Nord", Soroca City Hall curtails the right to information.
The Constitution and the Law on access to information do not explicitly regulate how authorities should interact with citizens on Facebook. However, the legal framework establishes clear principles. According to Article 34 of the Constitution, every citizen has the right of access to public interest information, while the authorities are obliged to provide the citizens with this information. The law on access to information states that anyone has the right to search, receive and share official information and that any limitation of this right must fall within one of the exceptions established by law [^ 5]. It goes without saying that the difference of opinion between citizens and officials does not qualify as such an exception.
Another law, the one on freedom of expression, states that any person has the right to criticize the government and public authorities, and the latter cannot sue for defamation .
The presence and communication of authorities and officials on Facebook with citizens is not significantly different from other platforms and environments. Thus the same principles of access to information and freedom of expression should apply to social media accounts as to Internet pages. Among other things, public authorities and officials should not have the discretion to limit a person's access to information, unless the latter violates the law, such as by spreading hate speech against any group protected under law.
In other words, blocking citizens' access to these profiles and pages means violating the right of access to information of public interest .
Facebook and public interest information
Facebook is the most popular social network in Moldova . A large number of public institutions and officials are active on this social media platform. These entities have the status of provider of official information and are required by law to make information available to citizens.
Either profiles or pages can be registered on Facebook. The platform developers envisioned that profiles would be used for personal purposes, while pages exist for interaction with a wider audience. In the context of governance, the citizens are the audience of these pages. However, according to Facebook Terms of Service, all information that is distributed via the "public" setting of the audience selector becomes public . This means that the information distributed by profiles via this option is public information.
According to Article 6 of the Law on access to information, official information is considered all information that is in the possession and is available to information providers. According to ECHR case law, all official information is by definition information of public interest [^ 10]. That is, information that I share on my personal profile, set to "public," is not necessarily "of public interest." On the other hand, the information shared by the president's official page is by definition official and of public interest.
The importance of communication and channels of communication between citizens, officials and public institutions is emphasized in the context of the coronavirus pandemic. In order to avoid the distrust of the population towards state institutions and to avoid producing a feeling of lack of control and panic, the government must maintain a constant flow of information regarding the state of affairs.
During a televised talk show, the director of the National Agency for Public Health (ANSP), Nicolae Furtună, was asked about the reasons why there is no dedicated website for COVID-19. The official replied that all relevant information is posted on ANSP's Facebook page. Furtună encouraged journalists to share information from that page .
Both Igor Dodon and other officials intensely communicate with citizens on Facebook regarding the epidemic situation. Blocking access to these accounts would deprive citizens of vital information that could save their lives.
Precedent from beyond the pond
Precedents when the courts have protected the right of access to information on social networks have already been set on the world stage.United States President Donald Trump, is famous for blocking his critics on Twitter. A court in New York has ruled that the information posted by President Trump on Twitter is of public interest, meaning that President Trump has no right to exclude some Americans from reading his posts on the grounds that he dislikes their views. The blocking of citizens by Mr. Trump has been ruled unconstitutional .
Although our laws differ, the principles invoked by the American claimants are similar to the principles on which Moldovan laws are based. US claimants said that the court's decision assures that citizens are not excluded from virtual forums and that the decision safeguards the integrity and vitality of digital spaces, which are increasingly important to democracy.
"My home - my rules" can be a valid principle of conduct for the online profiles and pages of citizens, which is why Facebook grants users the ability to block third party access to our virtual space.
However, this principle should not apply to official pages of public institutions and dignitaries. As long as these entities publish official information of public interest, they must obey the rules on access to information and freedom of expression, which means refraining from blocking unwanted users. If they resort to such practices, they should be held accountable.
The right to information is vital for democracy. Public institutions and officials can only be held to account by the citizenry in the context of a free exchange of information. The right of access to information has an impact on the formation of opinions and the democratic participation of the population in decision-making processes.
Considering that Moldova has entered the digital age, the courts must extend the right of access to information in digital spaces and bar politicians from sabotaging our democracy.
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