The federal Freedom of Information Act regulates the principle of public access to administrative activities ( (so-called principle of freedom of information). Under the Freedom of Information Act, anyone is entitled to access official documents without having to state an interest or motive. This shall promote transparency and comprehensibility of administrative activities.
Freedom of information
Freedom of information in the Federal Administration
When the Federal Act on Freedom of Information in the Administration (Freedom of Information Act) came into force, the Federal Administration moved away from a principle of non-disclosure to one of granting greater freedom of information. Since then, any person may
- inspect official documents, and
- obtain information about the content of such documents, without having to state a specific interest or motive.
The principle of freedom of information shall promote transparency of the organisation and functioning of the Federal Administration .It contributes to keeping the public informed, thereby increasing confidence in the state and its authorities. It helps making administrative actions more transparent thereby allowing the public to more clearly understand and assess political processes. The principle of freedom of information is therefore a tool for strengthening democratic participation. Moreover, it is an essential prerequisite for effective control of state authorities by the public.
The Freedom of Information Act regulates access to information upon request (so-called passive information). The authority only takes action if someone submits an application for access of one or more specific documents. Authorities are therefore not free to decide whether and how they wish to disclose information or documents. In contrast, active information – or information ex officio – is not regulated by the Freedom of Information Act.
To ensure that applicants rapidly receive the information requested or are informed about the restrictions of their application for access, the Freedom of Information Act provides for a streamlined procedure.
The principle of freedom of information is not in conflict with data protection provisions. The requirements of data protection legislation are rather to be borne in mind when implementing the Freedom of Information Act.
Official document/Definition of an official document
The Freedom of Information Act only applies to official documents. An official document is any information that
- has been recorded, regardless of the medium,
- is in the possession of the authority which issued the same or which it has been communicated to by third party that is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act, and
- concerns the execution of a public function.
By law, information that is used by an authority for commercial purposes (e.g. maps produced by the Federal Office of Topography) and documents that are incomplete, i.e. still in draft form, are not deemed to be official documents. Also excluded are documents intended for personal use (e.g. work aids such as handwritten notes, working copies of documents or memos).
The authority is only then obliged to process information according to the demands of an applicant if the same may be produced by means of a simple computerised process from recorded information. This includes, for example, a simple database enquiry by the authority.
If the application does not concern an official document, it may be rejected. It is at discretion of the authority to allow access to the document anyway.
Personal scope of application
The Freedom of Information Act applies to the Federal Administration (List of centralised and decentralised administrative bodies and the extra-parliamentary commissions), the Parliamentary Services and private or public organisations or persons, insofar as they enact legislation or issue rulings. Excluded from the personal scope are the Federal Council as the executive (in contrast, the individual federal councillors as heads of department are included), the parliament, the parliamentary commissions, the Swiss National Bank and the Swiss Federal Financial Market Supervisory Authority FINMA.
Material scope of application
The Freedom of Information Act does not apply to documents that are related to court proceedings. The Act sets out an exhaustive list of proceedings that are excluded (e.g. civil proceedings, criminal proceedings). This is intended to prevent conflict between the right to inspections of files and documents that are related to court proceedings and the right of access to official documents under the Freedom of Information Act.
This restriction applies to pending proceedings. According to the FDPIC’s established practice, the documents should be made accessible in accordance with the Freedom of Information Act, as soon as the proceedings have been concluded,. However, documents that were created specifically and explicitly for the proceedings (e.g. exchanges of submissions) remain inaccessible even after the closure of the proceedings.
Temporal scope of application
The Freedom of Information Act only applies to official documents that were issued or received by a public authority after the Act's commencement 1 July 2006. If a document, which has been issued before this date, is processed after 1 July 2006, this version is subject to the Freedom of Information Act.
Freedom of information on environmental matters
Irrespective of the Freedom of Information Act, the principle of freedom of information on environmental matters founds on the UNECE Convention on Access to Information, Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters (Aarhus Convention).
Switzerland ratified the Aarhus Convention in 2014; it applies at federal, cantonal and communal level. Among other things, the Aarhus Convention guarantees freedom of information regarding environmental information held by public authorities.
It is based on three pillars:
- Public participation in decisions on environmental activities
- Access to justice in environmental affairs
- Access to environmental information (freedom of information)
In accordance with the principle of freedom of information laid down in the Aarhus Convention anyone has the right to access information on environmental matters without having to state their interests or motives. The freedom of information regarding environmental matters under the Aarhus Convention is expressly set out in the Swiss Environmental Protection Act, which also defines environmental information. The Environmental Protection Act refers to the Freedom of Information Act with regard to the right of access to official documents containing environmental information held by federal authorities.
The right of access to documents may be claimed retroactively, which means that it also applies for environmental information that was held by an authority before any freedom of information legislation came into force. The Aarhus Convention excludes environmental information related to nuclear power plants from the right of access.
Applicants can invoke the Freedom of Information Act when requesting federal authorities to allow access to environmental information under the Aarhus Convention.
Freedom of information in the cantons
The Freedom of Information Act does not apply to cantonal and communal authorities. However, most cantons recognise the principle of freedom of information in their administrations, whether at constitutional or legislative level.
The following cantons have introduced the principle of freedom of information in their administrations: AG, AI, AR, BL, BS, BE, FR, GE, GL, GR, JU, NE, OW, SG, SH, SO, SZ, TG, TI, UR, VD, ZG, ZH.
The following cantons do not recognise the principle of freedom of information in their administrations: LU, NW.
Application for access should be directed to the cantonal administration where the documents to be accessed are held.
Last modification 21.04.2023