FOI Passage Factors Elucidated in Research

24 May 2011

Several papers addressing the various influences on passage of FOI laws were offered at The First Global Conference on Transparency Research held May 19-20 at Rutgers University-Newark, N.J.  (See overall report in

They concerned Latin America and the media’s role, the risks of comparative and China.

Looking at Latin America, political scientist Greg Michener found that “the strength of legislation and electoral timing of reforms are strongly influenced by two factors: 1) the degree to which presidents are able to use their legislative negative agenda-setting powers—parliamentary majorities and constitutional powers—to delay and resist strong laws; and, 2) the degree to which the news media transmit coverage for freedom of information. In simplified terms, I present an agenda-setting theory in which strong news media and weak presidents advance robust freedom of information laws.”

Eduardo Bertoni, director of the Center for Studies on Freedom of Expression –CELE-, Palermo University Law School, Buenos Aires, examined the involvement of journalists in coalitions supporting passage of FOI laws, reporting, “In some cases, it has been the press that has identified the issue and promoted alliances with other actors, where as in other cases, it has been civil society organizations, for example, that have sought out actors in journalism.”

A caution about comparative research emerged from work by Tom McClean, a doctoral candidate in the sociology department of the London School of Economics and Political Science.

He wrote:

This paper has shown that, contrary to the assumptions which underpin much of the contemporary literature, treating freedom of information as a single phenomenon with substantively similar implications in different countries may be seriously misleading. It has identified at least five configurations of institutional factors associated with the introduction of these laws, each of which corresponds with a particular set of interests and power relations, patterns of interaction and strategies of accountability and administrative control. In each, general public rights of access have been shown to have substantively different effects, and to exist for different reasons. This paper has suggested, in short, that the question “where does freedom of information work best” has no single answer, because there are qualitatively different kinds of “best”.

paper on China argued that “reform is not a result of economic development and a fight against corruption, but an outcome of improved information flow resulting from social, political, legal and economic factors.” These explain why China “has adopted a push model of FOI legislation stressing proactive disclosure,” according to Weibing Xiao, a lecturer at the School of Economic Law at the Shanghai University of Political Science and Law.

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