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Right to information

The right to obtain certain types of information is crucial if communities and individuals are to participate in decision-making that affects their lives. For example, if a company is planning to establish a mine or an industrial project in your locality, you cannot effectively challenge them without knowing what exactly they intend to do.

This guide focuses on

  • the main concepts of access to information rights common to many countries
  • how to request information
  • dealing strategically with situations where information is denied or unfair obstacles are imposed
  • how to handle information after you have obtained it (“disclosure”).
1

The importance of information

 

Strategic use of information is often at the heart of successful legal action. It informs you about what has happened, what is planned to happen, and who the parties involved are.

Information also enables you to decide what legal action you can take. Often, accessing information is linked to events and cases in other legal areas, such as land rights or corruption. However, sometimes it may be solely about the right of the public or individuals to access information.

The right to information can play a decisive role in, for example,

  • uncovering corruption 
  • holding public bodies accountable
  • providing better understanding of how basic public services function
  • enabling the right to a fair trial

The actual information request itself can put pressure on government and/or involved parties and serve as part of an advocacy campaign.

In some cases, a refusal to provide the information can be as helpful to what you want to achieve as the information itself would be if it shows that the authorities are trying to hide something that should be public knowledge.

2

Rights to information worldwide

Access to information is a human right that can be exercised by anyone, meaning that everyone has the

freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds”. – Article 19 of the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)

The state has to respect this right by facilitating access to the information it holds, and by not imposing restrictions on information unless there are important, legally-recognised reasons to withhold it.

Many countries have enacted laws to enable access to information, although the quality of the legislation and the extent of its implementation vary widely.

In some countries, a lot of information is published proactively, while in others, the purpose of the law is actually to block access to information!

Sometimes, access to information laws appear effective in principle but in practice, they are undermined by poor implementation or lack of capacity on the part of the authorities. Transparency suffers accordingly.

Section N on “Finding applicable law on access to information” provides an overview of the relevant international treaties and how to identify relevant national laws.

3

Good practice for access to information

Several NGOs have summarised good practice that promotes meaningful access to information for the public. These include the following principles:

  • maximum disclosure
  • the obligation to publish information proactively
    Limited exceptions, which must be clearly defined
  • the establishment of processes that facilitate access to information
  • low costs
  • open meetings
  • protection for whistleblowers

Together, these principles add up to best practice for public access to information. Unfortunately, public authorities do not always live up to them in practice. The public must often fight to turn access to information principles into reality.

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