Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Right To Know - Freedom Of Information

By Dave McGuire

[caption id="" align="alignleft" width="240" caption="Lepelenburger Park, Utrecht, the Netherlands"]Lepelenburger Park, Utrecht, the Netherlands[/caption]

Around the world, campaigners for the freedom of government information celebrate Right to Know Day on 28 September. As more and more people all over the world are finding out, getting information on what your government is doing can make a real difference in protecting rights.

The first right to know law was actually written in 1766, as part of campaigning by a Finnish thinker named Anders Chydenius. The idea was to promote open government through public access to papers. Over 240 years later, over 100 countries have some sort of laws promoting citizen's right to know - from Armenia to Zimbabwe.

Park or parking lot?
Here in the Netherlands, access to information is used by individuals to check government plans. Roger Vleugels is a lawyer and right to know campaigner in the city of Utrecht. He was approached by a group of concerned neighbors after the city of Utrecht planned to build a parking lot at the pictured Lepelenburg park.

The group had a hunch that the city hadn't done their job in getting the proper permits and environmental studies on the impact of building the garage. So they filed freedom of information requests to make sure the city had those documents. As Vleugels explains:
"In the end, their fears were right. A lot of documents were not produced, so the city was not able to build a parking lot - was not allowed to build it because they had no permits, they had no licenses. Nothing was organized well."

Just ask
People in the small Indian village of Keolari, in Madhya Pradesh, had another simple request. A local councillor had declared that he owned the communal well in the centre of town - and that no one but his family had the right to access the water. By doing a freedom of information request, the villagers found that the councillor's father had gifted the well to the village a year earlier. The access to water was returned to the people of Keolari, and the villagers were able to petition for their rights without resorting to bribes.

Right to know campaigner Venkatesh Nayak of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative in Delhi thinks the experience of getting access to information changes how people view their government.
"People who use their right to information, it's a poor comparison, but I compare them to man-eaters - like man-eating tigers. So what I say is people who have once tasted their right to information success, for all their lives they become right to information activists."

More openness, more scrutiny
While over 100 countries have right to information laws, the level of cooperation with right to know requests varies wildly. In the United States, concerns about terrorism have led to more and more obstructions and delays in granting freedom of information requests. Listen to an listen to an extended interview with Professor Charles Davis

But Charles Davis, head of the Freedom of Information Centre at the Missouri School of Journalism thinks the war on terrorism has actually led to more scrutiny:
"The irony is that right to know has grown exponentially around the world, and I wonder how much of that is in reaction to the secrecy that has been ushered in in the United States. I was doing this work in the ‘90s and nobody really cared about this topic. After 2001, everybody cared about government secrecy, and it was viewed as a huge problem."

Your part
Have you filed a right to know request? Was it successful? Do you see your government becoming more open? Let us know in the comment box below.

Source: RadioNetherlands.Nl

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