GAB is pleased to welcome this guest post by the Centre for Law and Democracy:
Today marks the first of what will be an annual recognition and celebration of citizens’ right to access information held by their governments. Making September 28 International Day for Universal Access to Information will, as the UNESCO resolution establishing it explains, help make governments and citizens alike aware that an “open and transparent government is a fundamental component of a democratic and developed state,” that all natural and legal persons have a “right to seek, access and receive information from public bodies and private bodies performing a public function,” and that it is “the duty of the state to prove such information.”
For the past five years the Centre for Law and Democracy and Access Info Europe have been tracking nations’ efforts in fulfilling this duty, and we are pleased to note that substantial progress has been made. There are now 112 countries with some form of right to information or freedom of information legislation on the books with six nations enacting a new law this year alone. Not all RTI laws meet the minimum criteria for granting citizens the right to information, and even those laws that do are not always enforced effectively. To keep watch over developments, our two organizations annually produce an RTI Rating reporting legal changes and assessing their compliance with international norms. This year’s report has a number of surprising findings.
Most notable is that for the first time since the Rating was launched in 2011 Serbia no longer rates as the top performer. Mexico has now passed it by. Mexico, long a regional and global leader on RTI issues, recently revamped its General Act of Transparency and Access to Public Information, and the new legislation scores an impressive 136 points out of a possible total of 150 on the Rating scale. This is a significant improvement on their previous score of 117, putting it just ahead of Serbia, which scores 135 points. Among the most important new improvements is a requirement that exceptions in other laws must be consistent not only with the standards in the right to information law but also Mexico’s international obligations to be valid.
The strongest law among the new countries on the RTI Rating is that of Sri Lanka, which scores 121 points, putting the country in 9th place globally. The passage of this law means that every country in South Asia apart from Bhutan now has an RTI law. The region is generally a strong performer, with every country scoring over 100 points except Pakistan, which continues to languish near the bottom of the Rating.
Tunisia’s law was replaced, in March 2016, with a significantly revamped Organic Law (which is the highest form of statutory law), which earned a score of 120 and moved the country from 45th place internationally all the way up to 10th place, just behind Sri Lanka. The new organic law replaces the Decree Law which was adopted just after the country’s 2011 revolution. Tunisia’s progression into the top tier of global RTI laws is all the more significant given that the Arab World is among the world’s weakest on this important human rights indicator, with only four of the 22 Member States of the Arab League – namely Jordan, Sudan, Tunisia and Yemen – having RTI laws on the books.
Just behind Tunisia is Kenya’s Access to Information Act, adopted in late August 2016, which ranks 14th in the world with a score of 113. This is the latest in a strong trend among African countries to adopt RTI laws, which is now starting to redress the longstanding position of the continent as lagging behind other regions of the world on this issue. It also results in seven African countries being among the top twenty, making it the region of the world with the most countries having this status. The Kenyan law is notable for its very broad coverage of private sector actors, which pushes the already expansive approach on this issue pioneered in Africa to new limits.
In September 2016, Argentines also celebrated the passage of the Ley de Acceso a la información. This does not reach the standards of the laws noted above, scoring 91 points and earning Argentina a ranking of 45th place. However, it is an enormous improvement over their previous decree, which was in the bottom third of the Rating, scoring just 66 points.
Amendments to the RTI rules in Canada, the first significant improvements since the country’s Access to Information Act first came into force in 1983, were more modest, but important nonetheless. CLD was vocal in welcoming the changes, enacted through a new Interim Directive on the Administration of the Access to Information Act, which included a blanket waiver of fees beyond the initial $5 for filing a request and a requirement that information be released in machine-readable and reusable formats wherever possible. Although the modest package of improvements only raised Canada’s ranking to 48th in the world, with a score of 90 points, the government is currently consulting on a more ambitious reform plan.
More middle-of-the-road laws were passed in Burkina Faso and Togo, scoring 79 and 70 points for rankings of 63rd and 79th place, respectively. Both countries have very problematic regimes of exceptions, vague procedures for requests for information and only limited promotional measures. At the same time, these laws represent an important expansion in terms of RTI laws in French-speaking African countries, which is a very welcome development.
The new RTI rules adopted by Vietnam and the Philippines are both extremely weak. Vietnam’s Law on Access to Information scores just 68 points, putting it in 86th place globally. In the Philippines, years of unsuccessful attempts to get an RTI law passed finally resulted in the adoption by the President of Executive Order No. 2 on Freedom of Information. As a set of RTI rules, however, the Order is among the world’s weakest, scoring just 46 points, putting the Philippines in 109th place globally out of the 111 countries on the RTI Rating. A notable weakness is the regime of 160 exceptions, set out in regulations under the Order.
The year 2016 offers ample evidence that strong progress on the right to information continues to be made. With 112 RTI laws now in place, and a 113th expected to come into force soon in Tanzania, there is a strong global trend towards greater recognition of this important right. The incorporation of RTI into SDG Target 16.10 can be expected to provide even greater impetus to this trend. Although the recent cohort of RTI laws have not been uniformly strong, the stellar performance of the new or amended laws in Mexico, Sri Lanka, Tunisia and Kenya continue to push global standards forward. Although there are many battles left to fight – not least working for positive implementation of the new laws – activists around the world have plenty to celebrate this International Right to Know Day.