World’s Right to Know

15 July 2002

By Thomas Blanton
Published in Foreign Policy, July/August 2002

During the last decade, 26 countries have enacted new legislation giving their citizens access to government information. Why? Because the concept of freedom of information is evolving from a moral indictment of secrecy to a tool for market regulation, more efficient government, and economic and technological growth.


History may well remember the era that spanned the collapse of the Soviet Union and the collapse of the World Trade Center as the Decade of Openness. Social movements around the world seized on the demise of communism and the decay of dictatorships to demand more open, democratic, responsive governments. And those governments did respond. Former Russian President Boris Yeltsin partially opened the Soviet archives. Former U.S. President Bill Clinton declassified more government secrets than all his predecessors put together. Truth commissions on three continents exposed disappearances and genocide. Prosecutors hounded state terrorists, courts jailed generals, and the Internet subverted censorship and eroded the monopoly of state-run media.

Most striking of all, during that decade, 26 countries-from Japan to Bulgaria, Ireland to South Africa, and Thailand to Great Britain-enacted formal statutes guaranteeing their citizens’ right of access to government information. In the first week after the Japanese access law went into effect in 2001, citizens filed more than 4,000 requests. More than half a million Thais utilized the Official Information Act in its first three years. The U.S. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) ranks as the most heavily invoked access law in the world. In 2000, the U.S. federal government received more than 2 million FOIA requests from citizens, corporations, and foreigners (the law is open to “any person”), and it spent about $1 per U.S. citizen ($253 million) to administer the law. Multilateral institutions are also trying to meet freedom-of-information challenges from their member states (as in the European Union (EU), where Sweden, Denmark, and Finland are criticizing the culture of secrecy favored by Germany and France) or from civil society (the World Bank is now fumbling with a half-hearted disclosure policy).

In the aftermath of September 11, as control of information emerged as a crucial weapon in the war against terror, troubling signs emerged that governments might be shutting the door on the Decade of Openness. But worldwide, new security measures and censorship laws have been few and far between. Canada contemplated but then backed away from giving its justice minister the power to waive its long-standing access law on an emergency, terrorism-related basis. India passed the Prevention of Terrorism Ordinance, which threatened jail terms for journalists who didn’t cooperate with law enforcement, but no such actions have yet occurred. Great Britain delayed implementing its new information access law until 2005 but said the delay had nothing to do with September 11.

Ironically, secrecy has made the most dramatic comeback in the country that purports to be the most democratic. Even before the al Qaeda attacks, the Bush administration claimed executive privilege in several high-profile requests for information, fighting off congressional calls for the names of private-sector advisors on energy policy and stalling the release of Reagan-era documents under the Presidential Records Act. But September 11 turned this tendency into a habit, sometimes justifiably (as in details of special operations in Afghanistan) but more often reflexively: In recent months, White House officials granted former presidents veto power over release of their administrations’ records, ordered agencies to use the most restrictive and legalistic response possible for FOIA requests, and denounced leaks even as mayors and local law enforcement complained about the federal government’s failure to share information. The Bush administration’s secrecy obsession will likely prove self-defeating, because like markets, governments don’t work well in secret. The most effective opponents of the president’s yen for secret military tribunals were not civil libertarians but career government prosecutors and military lawyers, who insisted on more open trials and more due process on legal and constitutional grounds, as well as for reasons of efficiency. The prosecutors know what President Bush does not-that openness fights terrorism by empowering citizens, weeding out the worst policies, and holding officials accountable (not least the foreign despots who are now temporary U.S. allies in the war against terrorism). More broadly, the motivations behind the freedom-of-information movement in countries outside the United States generally remain unchanged by the war on terrorism. Openness advocates are successfully challenging entrenched state and bureaucratic power by arguing that the public’s right to know is not just a moral imperative; it is also an indispensable tool for thwarting corruption, waste, and poor governance.

The full article is available below in both English and Spanish translation:

The World’s Right to Know (PDF – 670 KB)

El Derecho a la InformaciĆ³n (PDF – 1.6 MB)

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