Following our visit to Sweden in northern Europe via sunny southern France to the easternmost country where we settled this summer: Croatia. A young democracy and the youngest member of the European Union. With exactly as young access to public information laws.

⛱️ Access to public information in: Croatia

Open democracy

In 2003, Croatia became a candidate member of the European Union. Not at all coincidentally, just before accession, the first law on access to public information was also passed. After 10 years of negotiations, Croatia joined the European Union in 2013. A new version of the law that also regulates access to public information in Croatia today had entered into force earlier that year.

In 2023, Croatia will still be the youngest EU member. Together with Slovenia, which was admitted back in 2004, the only parts of the former Yugoslavia to meet the requirements of EU membership. Open democracies are not a given in the Balkans.

Right to know

‘Democratic values are always enforced by others’, is how Sergej Županić recaps, with a wink, this process. Županić is project manager at Gong, a Croatian NGO dedicated to democracy and citizenship.1See for example also Gongs platform for citizens where anyone can, in an interactive way, follow activities of the Croatian Parliament – laws and other acts, Members of Parliament, statistics, etc. – and can ask every Member of Parliament what they want to know: In 2015, Gong together with Code for Croatia launched the Croatian version of the Woo-Knop, Imamo Pravo Znati (link to English translation) meaning ‘We have the right to know’.

‘In the past eight years, 9,000 of the 160,000 Woo requests in Croatia, according to 2022 figures, were sent through our platform. That is almost 6% of the total.’ This relatively high percentage also surprised Županić himself. ‘And this year, the number of requests will pass the 10,000 mark.’

A first: statistics

The attentive reader notices immediately: in Croatia, the number of requests for public information is tracked. The Netherlands, as well as Sweden and France, could learn a thing or two from that. In 2022, the number in Croatia was 23.610 (page 11), out of a population of 3,900,000.

‘The requests often come from activists and journalists,’ Županić adds. He has been a journalist for more than 20 years with several awards to his name, including investigative journalist of the year. Even though his full-time job at Gong hardly allows him to publish anymore. ‘From the beginning, as a journalist, I have been using the right of access to government information a lot. Actually in all my investigations.’


In Croatia, the right to access public information was included in the constitution in 2010 (link to English version) and further described in 2013 in the Zakon o pravu na pristup informacijama (link to Engelish version), the current law regulating access to public information. ‘It is a right to information, but after some adjustments, in practice this right means access to government documents,’ Županić explains. ‘Just like in the Netherlands.

Grounds for refusal

According to artikel 15 of the Zakon o pravu na pristup informacijama access to public information can be denied in case of:

  • protection of personal information and personal data
  • (preparation for) investigation activities ongoing for the duration of the proceedings
  • information classified with a degree of secrecy, in accordance with the law regulating classified information
  • trade or professional secrets
  • tax secrets
  • obligations arising from international treaties

It’s hard to tell from glancing at this list what the differences to our Dutch law are. But talking a bit more with Županić about access to information in Croatia adds some very interesting facts and nuances to the list.

Weighting and waiting

In Croatia, public authorities must consider the interest of transparency when requesting public information, even in the case of personal data, professional or tax secrets or security information. Županić somewhat nuances the implications of this: ‘It certainly happens that public authorities give more weight to the interest of transparency. But in cases where a government authority has to adjudicate on classified security information, this never happens. Then the classification is used as a pretext for not disclosing the information.’

As in the Netherlands, in Croatia there is no obligation for public authorities to prepare new documents: only those that already exist can be requested. And there is no explicit limitation for asking only for official documents, as in Sweden.

But if, in the period leading up to the final version of a document, disclosure could seriously undermine the decision-making process, disclosure of preparatory documents – such as drafts – is refused. Once the document reaches its final version, the preparatory documents can be requested though.

Well-informed citizens

Remarkably, in Croatia, the law regulating the right to access public information also mandates that legislative initiatives require online public consultation. The legislator thus seems to want to say that the law aims at well-informed, engaged citizens.

And the obstacles?

As in the Netherlands, in Croatia there is no obligation for public authorities to prepare new documents: only those that already exist can be requested. And there is no explicit limitation for asking only for official documents, as in Sweden.

A perceived ‘excessive workload’ for the official can also be cited as a reason for not processing a request. Županić: ‘Legal and bureaucratic obstacles can discourage people from exercising their right to access.’ Hence, Gong does not shy away from also making requests itself. Sometimes with the very aim of removing obstacles to access public information.

Similar procedure

What does such a procedure look like in Croatia?

A request for government (or any other body of public authority) submission is free of charge and the legal response time is 15 calendar days. The government agency can extend the deadline by another 15 days. If there has been no reply or you disagree with the decision, you have to complain first to the same agency and if they don’t resolve your complaint, that is the moment you have the right to file a complaint at the information commissioner (link to information in English).

The information commissioner’s decision – unlike in the Netherlands the advice of our brand new Advisory Committee on Public Access and Information Management, abbreviated in Dutch as the ACOI – is binding and must be made within 60 or, extended if necessary, 90 days. If you disagree with the information commissioner’s decision, you can appeal to the courts.


Županić: ‘In practice, the procedure before the information commissioner can take considerably longer than the legal time limit. And the procedure in court takes sometimes up to 1 to 2 years, or even longer. Gongs legal battle with Croatian Bank for Reconstruction and Development (HBOR) lasted three years.’

Despite this, Županić is happy with the improvements regarding the power of the information commissioner – always appointed by parliament for five years – that have been made in recent years. As a result, the current information commissioner has more money and resources at his disposal than the first information commissioner in the years before him.

‘And in June last year, it was introduced that the information commissioner can impose a fine on the responsible official in a public authority that, despite the information commissioner’s binding decision to that effect, fails to disclose the requested information or documents to which you have the right of access within the deadline.’

Imposing fines on the minister in person

‘In the case of, let’s say, Ministry of justice, this fine would be imposed on the minister.’ In person, in other words. It takes a while to understand what he is saying. ‘These are fines of up to 10 times the monthly salary.’ From, say, the minister of justice or interior, who therefore has to cough it up from his own resources. ‘Also, if the fined person doesn’t oblige even after the fine, according to the law, he should get another one, this time higher. And so on until he does what he has to.’

The current information commissioner – whose term ends in November – recently officially threatened with this new means of pressure for the first time on the national level in proceedings that began on 26 May 2023 with a request from Gong.


Gong asked for the names of the persons who drafted a, in a democratic sense extremely controversial, law in the run-up to the elections that rearranged constituencies. After first refusing the request, the information commissioner decided that the justice minister really did have to release the documents containing the names of the persons who wrote the proposal of the new elections law, and within eight days.

‘The commissioner decided that we were 100% right. But, after seven days we received from the ministry only the names of three ministry officials in charge to lead and coordinate the responsible departments. And nót explicitly pointing out the names of the authors of the law.’

The deadline expired and the commissioner did not exercise his powers any further, yet. Županić adds: ‘Yes, at the moment the commissioner fell short of punishing the minister. I am not saying that the reason for this is necessarily that the commissioner until couple of years ago was the member of the todays ruling party.’

He can still impose a fine and Gong has filed a formal request for this. Also good to know in this case and in general: the execution of the commissioner’s decision, as well as the decisions regarding penalties, cannot be overturned by a court.

Open for business

Županić is now less optimistic but still firmly convinced that continuing the legal battle makes a lot of sense. This is also due to two recent decisions by the information commissioner in response to government requests submitted by Gong (see one request here and the other here, both in Croatian). The two different majority state owned banks, amongst which the above mentioned HBOR, who both regularly do business with government agencies, were forced by the information commissioner to release the documents.

‘The commissioner ruled that doing business with government bodies, regardless of the role of private companies in those businesses, means disclosure obligations.’ The documents were made public. ‘Unfortunately, we then ran into another problem in this case: the documents were about the close ties between these banks and some of the media, and no medium wanted to publish about the results of our investigation’, Županić slightly smiled.


One of these days, it will become clear how sharp the Croatian information commissioner’s knife is. And then, of course, there is the question of what Croatian citizens will do with the information. But one thing is clear: an impotent information commissioner is of no use to you as an applicant, but neither is an information commissioner who is only powerful on paper. The possibility of a fine to the minister in person…

We travel home with this fact about access to public information in Croatia humming in our heads. Musing, we think of the information commissioner who could have ended up in our recently renewed Dutch access to information law, Wet open overheid, but didn’t make the final cut, But who knows, maybe the ‘soft power’ of our brand new ACOI will ultimately have as much, or more, effect.

Either way, this was not our last trip abroad. Because looking for transparency across the border tastes like more.

Do you know more about access to public information in Croatia? Or do you have tips for SPOON’s next destination?

Please let us know!

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☀️ Thanks! ☀️

Holidays have ended and SPOON is unpacking her bags. But this is not going to be the last peek across the border.

Liset Hamming

Liset Hamming, co-founder SPOON

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