SNP MINISTERS have been operating a secret twin-track freedom of information regime, making it tougher for those most likely to embarrass them.

Scotland’s information watchdog found evidence journalists have been “significantly less likely to receive information” in previous years, with “unjustifiable, significant delays” and disregard for legal timescales.

It comes amid on ongoing row over the Scottish Government’s handling of FoI requests and the involvement of special advisers.

Critics branded the findings "outrageous", and accused the SNP of meddling in the FoI process to "stop bad news happening".

In a humiliating intervention, the Scottish Information Commissioner Daren Fitzhenry called on the Government to end its practice of treating journalists, MSPs and political researchers differently “because of who or what they are”.

His report found: “Journalists, together with MSPs and political researchers, are expressly made subject to a different process for clearance than other requester groups.

“This is inconsistent with the applicant-blind principle of FoI legislation. Their requests are almost invariably subjected to an additional layer of clearance which is likely to delay consideration of the case.”

In 2015/16, only 27 per cent of media requests were met with full disclosure, compared with 42 per cent of FoIs submitted by others.

When she took office, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon vowed to lead the most open and accessible government ever.

But Scottish Conservative MSP Adam Tomkins insisted the report “exposes Nicola Sturgeon’s secret Scotland”.

He said: “It reveals an SNP government which not only deliberately stands in the way of legally-binding FoI requests made by the media, but goes to great lengths to delay or influence what information is provided.

“That is completely contrary to Scotland’s FoI legislation. People will see this report and conclude the SNP government is trying to stop bad news happening, and its woeful performance being publicised, by meddling in this process.

“That is outrageous, and all cabinet ministers involved, and indeed the First Minister, have urgent questions to answer.”

Scottish Labour’s parliamentary business manager Rhoda Grant called on Ms Sturgeon to “address the findings of this report and apologise for bending the law to suit her narrow political interests”.

Scottish Green MSP Andy Wightman said: “This is a damning report, and vindicates the complaints of many journalists and researchers that Scottish ministers are slow and inconsistent in how they release information that the public are entitled to.”

Mr Fitzhenry launched his formal investigation at Holyrood's request after a series of complaints were raised by journalists last year.

He said that by singling journalists and researchers out, SNP ministers were offending the spirit of FoI legislation and potentially damaging trust.

The Scottish Government said it would accept the findings of the report in full, and confirmed its internal guidance will be updated with immediate effect.

Joe Fitzpatrick, minister for parliamentary business Joe Fitzpatrick, said: “Being open and transparent is a priority set out in our current Programme for Government.

“We welcomed and cooperated fully with the Scottish Information Commissioner’s review and are happy to accept his recommendations in full to support our continued improvement.

“As the report highlights, we have already implemented a number of changes that have resulted in significant improvements to our FoI performance.

"In the first five months of 2018 we responded to 93 per cent of FoI requests on time, exceeding the 90 per cent target set by the Information Commissioner and a 10% increase on last year.

“Outside the FoI process, last year the Scottish Government responded to over 5,000 queries from journalists in a matter of hours.”