Right to Know Day: Access to Information Rights
When I began working with journalists, editors and civil society leaders- and the public they serve- in countries where media freedom is not a given, one of the first things I noticed was the low expectations that government should be accountable to its citizens. As a taxpayer and voter in the United States, I have a very vivid perception that I own a share of what government does and that I have a right to know in almost all cases how it goes about it. This is more often not the case in many of the countries in which we work where free elections, strong independent media, and basic individual rights are lacking.
In too many countries, people, journalists included, are accustomed to a “begging” role when they need to engage at any level with what should be their government. And those who hold even small bits of government information often use that bit of power to assert their place in a system where they may be otherwise anonymous. “Elected” officials don’t actually feel they will be challenged at the polls, and feel minimal need to respect their constituents. Citizens, for their part, have little real awareness that they fund government and therefore should know how those monies are used on their behalf. At its worst, this dynamic gives license to rulers who use public resources for their own personal gain and that of their family and other elite supporters. But even when there is not the intent to use public money for private gain, this lack of public demand for government information abets poor governance, petty corruption, and waste that perpetuates poverty and hinders development.
September 28 is international Right to Know Day, focusing attention on access to information rights that are an important part of what citizens should expect from their governments. There is interesting work being done around open government and access to information as part of the broader transparency and accountability drive. The Open Government Partnership launched September 20 is intended as a new international drive to get governments to sign on to specific commitments, and to bring in civil society, media, technology and other forces to make them real. It has to be said that some of the countries engaging on this initiative are not ones that our experience might indicate have thus far demonstrated such a commitment, so it will be worth watching whether this high-profile effort gets better results. The Freedom of Information Advocates Network is an active information sharing network with international participation from lawyers, advocacy groups and others. FOIANet promotes Right to Know Day and put together a list of activities that can be undertaken locally to promote it.
At IREX we’re attuned to the idea that open government information is nearly meaningless if people have no ways to access it, nor anyone to guide them on how to find and use what they need. Media and civil society organizations need to know how to analyze and act on the data, as well as monitor how well governments are meeting their obligations. With technology creating ever more useful conduits for information, citizens are positioned to demand more accountability from their governments if they raise their expectations. IREX will continue to support media’s role in accessing and analyzing government information, will support e-governance initiatives that make it easier for governments to share information with the public, and will help civil society and citizens demand and access government information.