“The Right to Know is Gaining around the World”

11 October 2003

by Thomas Blanton
The International Herald Tribune, October 11, 2003, p. 6

Last month (September 23, 2003), Armenia became the 51st country in the world to guarantee its citizens the right to know what their government is up to. Armenia’s new freedom of information law is the latest outpost of the worldwide movement towards opening government files – a movement that took off in the 1990s and just this year also brought in the world’s second most populous country, India, and one of China’s largest cities, Guangzhou.

The new openness laws vary tremendously, face huge implementation problems, and often receive only lip service from bureaucrats. But the trend is producing much more government accountability, and often dramatic headlines. For example:

  • Requests under Japan’s 2001 access law revealed that the government tried to limit the geographic definition of areas affected by “Minamata disease” (mercury poisoning) in order to reduce compensation payments.
  • Requests under Mexico’s 2002 law are pressuring the government’s human rights commission to address more than 3400 complaints lodged by citizens, of which only a fraction were resolved last year, mostly in secret.
  • A request under the 2001 Delhi state-level Right to Information Act for documents on a promised sewer (supposedly under construction since 1983) in the Sunder Nagari neighborhood embarrassed the government into finally completing the project
  • British journalists waiting for the 2005 implementation of the U.K.’s new access law used Sweden’s (the oldest in the world, dating from 1766) to obtain letters from Prime Minister Tony Blair to the Swedish prime minister, after Blair’s government refused to release the documents, citing possible damage to foreign relations.

  • South African opposition parties used the new South Africa access law to open internal government documents on a controversial oil contract with Nigeria, all of the benefits from which went to an offshore company rather than to the South African people. Meanwhile, the Nigerian parliament is on the verge of passing its own access law.
  • Irish reporters used their 1997 freedom of information law to show collusion among four private license-holding companies and the government that has stymied the development of wireless and broadband Internet access in Ireland.
  • Israel’s freedom of information law compelled the Yad Vashem memorial council to open its files showing how it chooses which “righteous gentiles” to honor on its “Avenue of the Righteous” (non-Jews who helped Jews during the Holocaust).
  • The Bulgarian NGO, Access to Information Programme, used Bulgaria’s FOI law to reveal that the government’s minister of science and education had illegally (and under the table) rented out his agency’s lobby to a private company.

Ironically, civil society and government reformers around the globe are making this extraordinary progress at the very time that the United States is backing away from its previous leadership in open government. Even before the terrorist attacks of September 11th, the U.S. Congress had ordered a re-review of the hundreds of millions of pages declassified under President Clinton (more than all his predecessors put together), on the theory that nuclear-related information might be in those files. At a cost of tens of millions of dollars, this full employment program for securocrats has actually turned up mostly obsolete data on former locations of U.S. nuclear weapons – embarrassing for host governments like Japan’s which deceived their own people on the subject, but hardly fodder for terrorist bomb-building.

Also before September 11th, the Bush administration clamped down on presidential records, and covered up the oil industry’s influence in energy policymaking by Vice President Dick Cheney. After 9/11, Attorney General John Ashcroft told federal agencies to look for reasons to withhold information, and President Bush’s executive order on secrecy deleted the Clinton admonition of “when in doubt, release.” No doubt is allowed in today’s White House. While the U.S. Freedom of Information Act continues its status as the most-used in the world (over two million requests per year at a cost of about a dollar per citizen), delays and backlogs are mounting as top officials throw sand in the gears.

The administration’s reflexive secrecy will be self-defeating. The bipartisan Congressional investigation of 9/11 concluded that an informed public would be our country’s best weapon against terrorism. After all, the Unabomber was only caught after newspapers published his screed and his brother recognized the voice. The right-to-know fights terrorism, corruption, and repression; and the world is embracing, while Washington willfully forgets, the familiar finding by Justice Louis Brandeis: “sunlight is the best disinfectant.”

Thomas S. Blanton is director of the George Polk Award-winning National Security Archive at George Washington University in Washington D.C., and managing editor of the freedominfo.org web network of international access advocates.

© International Herald Tribune. Reprinted by permission.

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