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Freedom of Information Laws Spreading Around the World

Lalanath de Silva, Director of WRI’s Access Initiative, answers questions on how the “right to know” is evolving in both developed and developing countries.

September 28th is the 8th International Right to Know Day, which focuses attention on issues of government transparency. What do you think when you look back on the “Right to Know” movement in recent years?

This year we have much cause to celebrate, because there has been an explosion of new Freedom of Information Acts (FOIAs) around the world. By the last count, over 80 countries have enacted some form of FOIA, and the vast majority of these have been introduced in the past five or six years. FOIA laws are quickly becoming the norm. Transparency is becoming the global norm. And governments that do not adhere to these principles are having much more trouble justifying their positions. That said, there is still a lot that needs to be done to improve implementation of these laws. Our research has shown that practice lags behind.

What is behind the recent boom in Freedom of Information Acts?

When a government is transparent, there is less room for corruption and more room for accountability. That’s why FOIAs are becoming standard good practice in the international community. International organizations, Multilateral Development Banks, and bilateral donors including USAID are all looking to see whether government transparency is part of the legal system as they decide where to give aid. But this isn’t just about international pressure. There has also been increasing demand from within countries. Civil society and citizens’ groups have really made some impressive progress. As the old saying goes, “sunshine is the best disinfectant.”

Why is promoting freedom of information laws important to an environmental organization like WRI?

Making the right environmental choices - as consumers, voters and shareholders – depends on having access to accurate information on the issues that confront us every day, from the quality of the food we eat, to the impacts of corporate supply chains, to the voting records of parliamentarians. Much of this data is held by or can only be forced into the open by government.

Where have you seen progress on Freedom of Information?

Bangladesh and India have made good progress. Chile too has just passed new FOI legislation. Indonesia passed a FOIA in the past few years, and has been making special efforts to be more transparent.

On this issue, the division between developing and developed countries is shrinking.

Mexico has one of the best examples of a well-functioning FOIA. In Mexico, information isn’t just released to the person who requested it. It’s released to everyone. This means that different people do not have to reinvent the wheel each time with different FOIA requests, which saves a lot of time and effort. When it’s released once, it’s public for everyone. IFAI, the Instituto Federal de Acceso a la Informacion, puts information online and also webcasts hearings on information request appeals. The vast majority of requests so far have been for personal information, like birth certificates or pension records. Before the new law, people had trouble accessing this kind of information even about themselves. Interestingly, the new law is also used by government agencies to get information from other government agencies!

What does Freedom of Information mean in more developed countries?

Well, the United Kingdom did not even have a right to information five years ago. But in 2009, because of their new law a young journalist made a request for Members’ of Parliament (MP) expenditure statements. Her request was denied by th Speaker of parliament but she won her appeals including one in the country’s Highest Court – the House of Lords – which ordered the release of the information. When the reports were released, all of this questionable spending with public funds came to light – pool cleanings, replacing chandeliers, etc. There was a huge public uproar, and the Speaker ended up resigning. It rocked the entire government establishment, all as a direct impact of a freedom of information request. And now, people can access their MPs’ expense reports online.

In the United States, the debate has evolved towards a more modern sense of what “Freedom of Information” should mean. Today, citizens have the right to ask the government for information, to pull that information out, but the process can take multiple requests and a lot of time and effort. Much less burdensome would be for the government to push information out. Since President Obama’s Open Government Executive Order, the government has been much more proactive about getting information out to people. More than 20 U.S. agencies have implemented the order, and websites like data.gov make information – about TARP, or the BP Oil Spill, or Congressional fundraising – much more accessible. This is quite new to the U.S.

What makes a good Freedom of Information Law?

The best laws cast the right to information in the widest possible terms with the fewest limits or exceptions. Good laws have enforcement mechanisms so that citizens can make requests and appeal if necessary to an independent body. This is why some FOIAs tend to fall short – in Indonesia for example, many are dissatisfied with the number of exceptions and limits to the rules, and the lack of strong enforcement.

What should be the focus of this movement in the coming year?

We need to keep the momentum going. I would like to see a big push from governments of all countries to establish transparency as the norm and bring it into the international process. President Obama’s global open government initiative announced last Thursday at the UN promises to be a good vehicle for doing exactly that. Some countries, like Sweden and Denmark, have had their FOI laws since the 1700s, but there are leaders in this area among developing countries too, like Mexico, Brazil, and India. On this issue, the division between developing and developed countries is shrinking.

This is the right moment for some cross-north/south leadership that could tip the balance towards transparency even further. That’s what we should be working for this year.

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