The right to information is vital for preventing corruption. When citizens can access key facts and data from governments, it is more difficult to hide abuses of power and other illegal activities - governments can be held accountable.
Access to information also empowers citizens by informing their voting, giving them a chance to speak out against injustice and ensuring they know their rights. In Mexico, when communities denied healthcare and education learnt that they had a right to these services they fought to access them.
The value of access to information is recognised around the world and there are many countries where, both on paper and in practice, the right to information is a reality. Nearly 120 countries have laws to enable it, however this doesn’t necessarily mean that citizens can get important government data in all of these countries.
Having a law is not enough
Many of the laws don’t meet international standards, and are not properly implemented and promoted. Even strong laws can be ineffective if the officials providing information are undertrained, too few or supporting a culture of secrecy. Complicated bureaucracy can put information out of reach for citizens, who are often unaware that they can even request it.
Many right to information laws don’t lead to more informed populations who can call corrupt politicians and officials to account. That’s why Transparency International puts pressure on governments around the world to do better on this key issue.
Right to information in Asia Pacific
To mark International Right to Know Day, we are launching a report on eleven Asia Pacific countries and calling on their governments to make right to information a priority. The report covers Bangladesh, Cambodia, Maldives, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Sri Lanka, Vanuatu and Vietnam.
They all need to strengthen their right to information (RTI) systems. While eight of the countries have RTI laws, six have many broad or controversial exceptions. Exceptions let governments withhold information on certain topics for reasons like security, but they can be misused to keep incriminating information secret.
Tests to balance the public interest of disclosing or withholding information are missing from most laws. Without these tests, officials can claim that they are protecting the public by withholding information when they are really acting against public interests.
Delia Ferreira Rubio, chair of Transparency International, said: “Several of the countries assessed in this report have recently been rocked by corruption scandals involving senior officials and political leaders. Most continue to score poorly in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. A well-functioning right to information system is critical for exposing and deterring abuses of power, and for supporting the fight against corruption.”
Many of the countries in the report also have bureaucracy that discourages people who seek information. Maldives, Mongolia, Nepal and Vietnam ask information seekers to provide their name and address. Public officials also frequently ask for the reason information is being requested. This can be intimidating - potentially discouraging people from exercising their right to information - and can lead to requests being denied. It also goes against international standards.
In several countries public officials and judges are not fully trained to understand and comply with RTI legislation, leaving information buried under disorganisation and poor judgements. At the same time, Mongolian, Nepalese and Pakistani citizens are not given enough information on how to make requests, complaints and appeals when seeking facts and data.
“This International Right to Know Day, Transparency International urges citizens to find out about the laws in their country and exercise their right to information. In countries where laws do not yet exist, governments must act quickly to grant their citizens this important human right”, stated Delia Ferreira Rubio.
Freedom of expression
Improvements in RTI systems only make a difference if people can freely use the information they obtain, including sharing it publically. Half of the countries in the report have severe restrictions on freedom of expression and media. Citizens, civil society organisations and journalists who share certain information on public platforms frequently face intimidation through repressive laws, verbal threats or physical attacks; throughout the world people have been murdered following their information requests, for example in India and Slovakia.
Bangladesh, Cambodia and the Maldives have criminal defamation laws that stop public information sharing, while Mongolia, Pakistan and Vietnam have laws with similar effects. By denying the right to information and the right to use it, these governments continue to disempower their populations while increasing the risk of corruption.
As well as putting freedom of expression into law, Transparency International recommends that any country with a weak RTI system does the following:
- Review exceptions to clarify and limit them.
- Include public interest tests - which balance the public interest of disclosing or withholding information - in legislation.
- Allow anonymous information requests without the need to provide a reason.
- Train public officials in the use of RTI legislation.
- Establish independent information commissions - public bodies responsible for RTI systems - and give them effective powers to implement and promote RTI.
All of these countries can change for the better, as shown by Cambodia drafting its first RTI law and Maldives voters recently throwing out a president who repressed media freedom. If you want better access to information in your country, call on your government online, in person and through your local Transparency International chapter. Individuals can make changes with information, but first they must persuade governments to give access to information.
To find out more about RTI in the Asia Pacific read our report, Right to Information in Asia Pacific: How 11 Countries Perform on SDG 16.10.