Right to information: a tool for people power

Right to information: a tool for people power

This Saturday, 28 September marks the fourth International Day for the Universal Access to Information and an important moment for transparency and anti-corruption efforts.

Globally, approximately 120 countries have right to information laws. In some countries, these laws are top notch, while in others, the laws either don’t exist or need significant improvements.

Legislation, though, is only half the battle. Without full implementation, laws have little chance of success.

From Jamaica to Germany and Mexico to Montenegro, citizens around the world are speaking out and demanding their right to information to ensure greater accountability from government.

But are most people even aware of their right to request information in the first place?

New research from Latin America

We know information is essential for empowering citizens to hold governments accountable and tackle corruption.

Yet, according to our new Global Corruption Barometer – Latin America and the Caribbean 2019, published earlier this week, less than half of people (39 per cent) in the region are aware of their right to request information from government agencies and institutions.

Only 17 per cent of citizens used this right to request official documents from the government in the previous 12 months.

However, in Jamaica and Mexico, the data paints a more hopeful picture.

More than half of citizens in Jamaica and Mexico are aware of their right to information (51 per cent and 64 per cent respectively), which are the highest results in the region.

Yet, in other countries around the world, the universal right to information is currently under threat.

Legal challenges in Montenegro

Recent proposed amendments to a right to information law in Montenegro raise serious concerns that risk undermining the country’s constitution.

The amendments would make it harder for citizens to freely access information that was previously publicly available.

At the same time, the Montenegrin government would have broader leeway to classify information and apply additional restrictions.   

Greater transparency in Germany

Since 1999, in Berlin, Germany, the Freedom of Information Act has allowed Berliners to access government information and documents to better understand the inner workings of their city government.  

However, information is only available upon request and the process entails fees and long wait times. There are numerous exceptions and loopholes to the law that allow information to remain restricted.

A new Transparency Act would require Berlin government officials to publish important information in a proactive, timely and centralised manner – all free of charge.

Transparency International Germany, together with 50 partner organisations, recently formed the Alliance for Transparency, to convince local policymakers to take up the issue in the legislature.

However, in order to prompt a debate in the Berlin Senate, the alliance needs to collect 20,000 signatures from Berlin residents and German citizens by November 2019. Learn how you can help.

Parliamentary openness campaign in Sri Lanka

Over the past year, 10 members of the Sri Lankan Parliament agreed to publicly declare their assets in the name of transparency.

Our chapter, Transparency International Sri Lanka, is working hard to ensure that more lawmakers follow suit.

Passed in 2016, the country’s right to information law was a critical and necessary first step towards public disclosure of parliamentarians’ assets. Without the law, asset declarations from elected officials would have remained out of the reach of Sri Lankan citizens. Read more.

Journalist investigates local roads in Pakistan

After raising concerns about the poor conditions of the local roads in his community in Pakistan, Sher Khan, a journalist from Burewala Tehsil, decided to do something about it.

Khan filed several information requests with his local government to inquire about the budget for road development. What he found was troubling.

The information the government disclosed to Khan showed a range of work commissioned, but never completed. This included an extended railway crossing gate, traffic signs, street lights and new paving tiles. Read more.

Training goes a long way in Cambodia

In Cambodia, government officials like Samnang Chey, are sometimes the biggest advocates for right to information in their local communities.

After completing a training on good governance and public service delivery in Kampong Cham, a province in Cambodia, Chey was better equipped to field information requests and teach other colleagues his new skills.

Since 2017, Chey has trained 433 government officials to help citizens access a range of public services more easily and effectively. He even developed a new smartphone app to help citizens find relevant forms, service delivery times and information on associated fees. Learn more.

What we’re doing

While laws are incredibly important in improving people’s access to information in countries around the world, they’re only part of a bigger picture of freedom of information.  

Transparency International and our chapters work to ensure right to information laws are in line with international standards, fully applied in practice and used by citizens to hold government accountable. We also play an important role in helping citizens understand how to use their rights.

Whether filling out a form online, requesting information in person or through the mail, helping with follow-up at municipal offices or working to appeal refusals, we help ensure citizens are armed with the information they need to better understand their government and make a difference in tackling corruption.

Image: Transparency International Bangladesh

For any press enquiries please contact press@transparency.org

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