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Transparency International Marks Right To Know Day

Transparency International, the civil society organisation leading the global fight against corruption, joins campaigners around the world in promoting the International Right to Know Day. Securing citizen’s right to access information held by public bodies is a necessary –though not sufficient- first step to help prevent corruption.

To date over 60 countries worldwide have passed legislation guaranteeing that citizens can access information held by public bodies. However, an entrenched culture of secrecy, still present in many of these countries, means that the effective fulfilment of this right is far from satisfactory. This invariably creates greater risks for corrupt practices to develop.

Transparency International (TI) supports the adoption of transparency and access to information standards and legislation –not only as an integral part of a basic system of human rights- but as a way to ensure that public business is conducted with minimised corruption risks, namely by giving citizens and communities to ability to make informed decisions, thus allowing them the opportunity to fully participate in public life.

To commemorate this day we have chosen to compile stories illustrating how Transparency International’s National Chapters have concentrated on the right to access information to curb corruption.

Background on “Right to Know Day”

Transparency International – Some national chapter activities to promote access to information

Other TI Publications on Access to Information:

Selected Additional Links

Background on “Right to Know Day”

On 28 September 2002 Freedom of Information organisations from around the globe meeting in Sofia, Bulgaria, created a network of Freedom of Information Advocates (FOIA Network) and agreed to collaborate in promotion of the individual right of access to information and open, transparent governance.

The group of FOI Advocates also proposed that 28 September be nominated as international "Right to Know Day" in order to symbolise the global movement for promotion of the right to information. The aim of having a Right to Know Day is to raise awareness of the right to information. It is a day on which freedom of information activists from around the world can use further to promote this fundamental human right and to campaign for open, democratic societies in which there is full citizen empowerment and participation in government.

Transparency International – Some national chapter activities to promote access to information:

1. Argentina: Shedding light into finances behind government publicityArgentina has yet to adopt a national law to guarantee that citizens can effectively access information held by public bodies. In the meantime, however, the Office of the President has passed a decree (Number 1172/03) which opens up the information held by all branches of the Executive branch to the public. Poder Ciudadano, TI’s National Chapter in Argentina, has used this to monitor how much money the government has spent on official publicity and in which kind of media this advertising occurred.

TI’s findings revealed through the monitoring process, that no set of criteria exist to decide how the expenses are made. “There is no rule describing objectively how public funds are allocated to different media. The right to freedom of information is affected because the beneficiaries of official publicity might not report on issues that might be problematic for the government. Democracy is harmed, since citizens obtain only partial information, tainted by the flow of official funds”, said Laura Alonso, from Poder Ciudadano. Spanish speakers please see: www.infocivica.org or www.poderciudadano.org.ar

The process of obtaining the documents has also proved complex, as the authorities have yet to put into place the mechanisms to effectively hand out the information as simply as the decree itself foresees it and as citizens are yet to become aware of the process of requesting information. To raise awareness, a new Citizens Guide for Transparency was developed by the Social Forum for Transparency, a coalition of civil society organizations, to help citizens understand the 1172/03 Decree. Guia ciudadana

2. Colombia: Technology helps citizens access public accounts in 400 cities.

The life of many contractors of middle-sized cities in Colombia has changed for the better since they can now access online all of the cities bidding processes and to the city’s public accounts and budgets. Through the project “Internet for Accountability”, developed by the National TI Chapter in Colombia, contractors can now see, every day, every step of the public contracting processes. This brings greater transparency into the process and minimises risks for corruption practices. Citizens and contractors can see the conditions for the bids, the contractors participating in a process and the conditions for each bid that the city has to offer. By 2006 this project will cover 90 percent of Colombian cities.

The project involved the development of a free-source, open code software, in conjunction with local authorities, to upload information about the City’s accounts. Mayors, information technology experts, and civil society members agreed on the shape and content of the software. After a successful pilot phase in a handful of cities, the software was donated to the Colombian federal government, through the Communications Ministry. After this, the President decided that the implementation of this accountability tool would be implemented in 627 cities in 2005 and in over 400 in 2005.

The ability to check the city’s accounts has not only affected contractors, but other sectors as well, as the education sector, which also benefits from monitoring the way in which the city handles resources for this sector.

3. Guatemala: Citizen Observatory to secure access to informationToday, the citizens of Guatemala are still impeded from accessing information held by public bodies. However, Acción Ciudadana, the local chapter of Transparency International, has embarked on a series of alternative and innovative activities to raise awareness about the need to respect this right. Among these, the establishment in 2002 of the Citizens Observatory, a multi-sector coalition formed by 20 civil society organisations, dedicated itself to promote the concept of access to information while at the same time monitoring existing regulations which offer citizens some kind of access to information held by public bodies.

While the Observatory’s mission was to influence the process of drafting and adopting new legislation, it also organised awareness raising activities such as street theatre performances, artistic performances, and training of young volunteer monitors. It also published a Citizens’ Manual for Free access to information, aimed at training citizens to monitor and assess the performance of the government in carrying public policy forward. The Manual also explains how to conduct social audits and to formulate alternative proposals to improve public performances.

After almost three years of campaigning, Guatemala does not yet have a law on access to information, but the efforts of civil society to promote this right and how its fulfilment can be of use to prevent greater risks of corruption, have paid off in creating a better informed and more active citizenship.

4. Peru: “Who runs the region of Lambayeque” –a database of public officials.

In an unprecedented move in Peru, the government of the region of Lambayeque has an online “Who is who in Lambayeque Regional Government”, a public database with information about the main political representatives in the region. This tool was developed by Proetica, the Peruvian chapter of Transparency International.

Using a simple Internet website and database tool, the public can read about the profiles of public officials, their careers and performances, as well as the publication of their tax forms, where they declare their property and assets.

Why Lambayeque?
Following a process of political reform, the regional government approached Proetica for suggestions to improve transparency in local administration. Although the process of gathering the information presented no technical difficulties, it proved that cultural challenges still needed to be overcome. There was some resistance from public officials to reveal some information –on personal assets for example- for fear that this might incite crimes against them such as extortion or kidnapping. The database currently lists the officials name and current position, as well as formerly occupied positions. It also mentions if these officials have registered administrative sanctions in their previous commitments.

However, the existing database has not resulted in greater risks for the currently listed public officials, and citizens are now in a much better position to assess the performance and record of the officials in charge of the different areas of the regional administration.

See more in: www.proetica.org.pe and www.regionlambayeque.gob.pe

5. Lebanon: From building houses to creating a debate…it all adds up to promote greater access to information

Since 1999 the Lebanese Transparency Association (LTA) has promoted the right to access information in its efforts to curb corruption in Lebanon. Although the Lebanese Constitution, formulated in 1926 guarantees through Article 13 the right of freedom of expression and belief, it did not include any provision on access to information. Despite the efforts made in the post-civil war period, where Lebanon witnessed huge progress in terms of displaying information, access to information is still scant and restricted to the public, thereby limiting the possibility of holding officials accountable.

To this end, the LTA launched several innovative projects, in a region where the debate to promote access to information is still in its early stages.

On a practical level, the LTA developed a booklet in Arabic elaborating and simplifying one of the most complicated administrative transactions in the Lebanese administration: the construction permit. The manual consists of a description of the necessary procedures to acquire a construction permit in Lebanon in such a way that builders do not need to bribe officials in order to receive the construction permit

In a pioneering effort to contribute to the debate in the Arab Region, the Lebanese Transparency association (LTA) has published a book, entitled “The Right to Know: The Arab Reality in the Light of International Experiences”, which is made up of thirteen (13) chapters and divided into two (2) main parts. The first seven chapters are based on the work of the authors commissioned to develop country reports, sharing the various experiences on the status of Access to Information in the region. It includes the country reports of seven (7) countries from the region, namely Palestine, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Morocco, Algeria, and Lebanon. The second part includes Arab translation of Transparency International’s Global Corruption Report 2003, on Access to Information.

In August 2005, as part of its awareness campaign the LTA published a series of booklets, one of which concentrates on transparency and access to information. The main aim of the campaign is to link corruption to the vacuums in transparency, access to information, and democracy.

At the same time, the LTA has been very active in the process of drafting a law on access to information which is being discussed with the political forces in Lebanon.

6. Romania: Citizens’ Guides on access to information – Training of Public Officials

After monitoring how public officials were applying the Romanian access to information law in Romania, Transparency Romania decided to publish a best practice guide for public officers in the Romanian public service. Surveys showed that only 15% of public officials have been trained to effectively handle requests of information by citizens.

The obstacles in obtaining information –due to demand or supply problems- has proved to create risks for the development of potentially corrupt practices. TI Romania has therefore made it a priority to train public officials on how to comply with the existing legislation, with over 700 officials trained up to date.

A brochure collecting the results of the research and the Access to Information law enforcement tools (best management/practice guides) was printed and disseminated in trainings during 2005. Thus, local government/public administration units in Romania are able to effectively adapt their structures to better respond to information requests from citizens, NGOs and journalists.

TI-Romania published three practical guides on FOIA: Access to Information of Public Interest in Romania (2001), The Role of the People's Advocate in Protecting Free Access to Information of Public Interest (2002) and Access to Public Interest Information—guide for citizens and public servants (2004), as well as one on TDM: Transparency of Decision-Making in Public Administration—citizens and administration guide (2003).

Other TI Publications on Access to Information:

Anti Corruption Handbook ~
This Handbook is a practical tool which aims to assist the process of design and application of anti-corruption reform measures. Intended as a one-stop reference for practitioners from all over the world, it provides a unique and up-to-date overview of key reform elements, developing a framework for their effective implementation illustrated by examples of good practice. Click below for the section on access to information.

2003 Edition of the Global Corruption Report

Corruption Fighters Tool Kit
The Corruption Fighters' Tool Kit is a compendium of practical civil society anti-corruption experiences described in concrete and accessible language. It presents innovative anti-corruption tools developed and implemented by TI National Chapters and other civil society organizations from around the world. The publication highlights the potential of civil society to create mechanisms for monitoring public institutions and to demand and promote accountable and responsive public administration. Section IV of the 2002-2003 Edition concentrates on Access to Information.

Selected Additional Links

www.foiadvocates.net
Website hosting the network of organizations advocating for greater freedom of information

Privacy International Map
Map of the world showing how many countries have adopted access to information legislation. Updated September 2005.

www.freedominfo.org
This site is a one-stop portal that describes best practices, consolidates lessons learned, explains campaign strategies and tactics, and links the efforts of freedom of information advocates around the world.

Global Transpareny Initiative
The Global Transparency Initiative (GTI) is a network of civil society organisations promoting openness in the International Financial Institutions (IFIs), such as the World Bank, the IMF, the European Investment Bank and Regional Development Banks.

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