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The Right to Ask .. The Right to Know

About access to Information

In a democracy it is essential that people can access a wide range of information in order to participate in a real and effective way in the matters that affect them.

Public bodies hold lots of information on behalf of the public. The information belongs to the public and that's why we all have the right of access to this information in the hands of the public bodies as "servants of the people".

This right of access to information places two key obligations on governments. First, the obligation to publish and disseminate to the public key information about what different public bodies are doing. Second, governments have the obligation to receive from the public requests for information and the obligation to respond, either by letting the public view the original documents or receive copies of documents and information held by public bodies.

Access to information is a fundamental human right with two parts:

Proactive
The positive obligation of public bodies to provide, to publish and to disseminate information about their main activities, budgets and policies so that the public can know what they are doing, can participate in public matters and can control how public authorities are behaving.

Reactive
The right of all persons to ask public officials for information about what they are doing and any documents they hold and the right to receive an answer. The majority of information held by public bodies should be available, but there are some cases where the information is withheld in order to protect privacy, national security or commercial interests.

Can I get access to all information held by public bodies?

No. The right of access to information is not an absolute right. There may be some information that would cause harm if released, at least at this point in time.  For more information on exceptions to access to information click here.

How do I make a request for information?

Remember that you have the right to ask the government questions and the government has to respond because it's your right to know! Due to the exceptions seen above, they may not always give you information but they always have to answer your request.

Who can make a request?

Anybody can make a request for information regardless of their nationality and there is also no need to justify your interest in the information nor to answer questions about the reason for asking for the information, nor do you have to give detailed answers to questions about who you are or what you will do with the information. However, it's a good idea to give them an email address so that they can contact you easily.

How do I make my request?

To file a request is simple and there are not many formalities. In most cases you can file your request both written and orally, and in case you file them in writing you can do it also by email.

What should I say in my request?

Your request should be as specific as possible. In most cases it is not necessary to identify a specific document by any formal reference (Italy is the one exception here).

In the first requests you send, it's a good idea to keep the requests relatively simple and clear. That way you have a better chance of getting a quick answer and you can always make follow-up requests.

How will I receive the information?

You can get access to the information in different formats (inspection of originals, copies, DVDs, CDs, etc.) In almost all cases you can ask for a specific format and you have a right to receive the information in that format, unless it is impossible or too expensive. You should specify in your request in which format you want to receive the information.

When will I receive the information?

Countries have different time frames for answering requests, for notifications of extensions or issuing refusals, which go from as soon as possible to 1 month. Extensions in case of complex requests: Most countries permit public bodies to extend the timeframes if the request is complex. Such extensions are usually for an additional few days up to an extra month. In all cases the requestor should be notified of the delay and reasons should be given.

And if I don't get the information I asked for?

You have right to appeal if you don't get the information. There are normally at least two stages of appeal. Firstly, appeal to the body which refused to give the information or which failed to answer. Check what your national access to information law says, but normally the appeal letter can be sent to the head of the institution. In countries which have good access to information laws, there will be a clear system for filing appeals. The second stage of appeal is either to the courts or, if your country has one, the information commission or commissioner.

 

 
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History of Right of Access to Information

Access to Information: A Fundamental Right, A Universal Standard, 17 January 2006. [cited in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe during the debate on the new Convention on Access to Official Documents in October 2008].

· 1766 – Sweden adopts world’s first access to information law: The law establishes press freedom, including the freedom to print and disseminate materials about the government, courts, and parliament. The law, which forms part of Sweden’s constitution, recognises that press freedom is contingent upon access to information and states “to that end free access should be allowed to all archives, for the purpose of copying such documents in loco or obtaining certified copies of them”.

An English translation of the original law can be found in the publication "The World´s First Freedom of Information Act - Anders Chydenius´ Legacy Today" published in 2006 on the 240th anniversary of the adoption of the first access to information law by the Chydenius Foundation. Anders Chydenius (1729-1803) was a Finnish enlightenment thinker and politician who played a crucial role in creating the new law in 1766.

· 1789 France’s Declaration of Human and Civic Rights which still forms part of the French Constitution establishes at Article 14 that: “All citizens have the right to ascertain, by themselves, or through their representatives, the need for a public tax, to consent to it freely, to watch over its use, and to determine its proportion, basis, collection and duration.” Although this declaration has not been used as the basis for asserting a right of access to information in France, it does seem to provide for a public “right to know” about the spending of taxes.

· 1946 UN General Assembly Resolution 59(1) on Freedom of Information says: “Freedom of Information is a fundamental right and is the touchstone of all the freedoms to which the United Nations is consecrated. Freedom of Information implies the right to gather, transmit and publish news anywhere and everywhere without fetters. As such it is an essential factor in any serious effort to promote the peace and progress of the word.” This language was not however clearly understood or defined at the time as the right to request and receive information from public authorities.

· 1966 United States of America adopts Freedom of Information Act: Enacted in 1966, The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is a federal law that establishes the public's right to obtain information from federal government agencies. The FOIA is codified at 5 U.S.C. Section 552. "Any person" can file a FOIA request, including U.S. citizens, foreign nationals, organizations, associations, and universities. In 1974, after the Watergate scandal, the Act was amended to force greater agency compliance. It was also amended in 1996 to allow for greater access to electronic information. An interesting article of the adoption of the US FOIA, and President Lyndon Johnson’s reluctance to sign it, can be found on the website of the National Security Archive, along with a history of subsequent amendments.

· 1981: Council of Europe adopts Recommendation to member States on the Access to Information Held by Public Authorities. This non-binding recommendation urges member states to ensure that “Everyone within the jurisdiction of a member state shall have the right to obtain, on request, information held by the public authorities other than legislative and judicial bodies.” The recommendation reflects the trend in Europe to recognise a right of access to administrative information, as reflected in laws such as France’s 1978 law on the “improvement of relations between the public and the administration” and the Netherland’s 1978 “law on openness of the administration”.

Documents

Freedom of Information, a Finnish Clergyman's Gift to Democracy for more information - article by Stephen Lamble from February 2002.

 

Resources

Saber Mas III: Regional report on access to informaiton and data protection- Briefing Paper - 28/09/2011

This publication tackles the relationship and coexistence of two rights: access to public information and the protection of personal data.

Access to Information: A Fundamental Right, A Universal Standard - Briefing Paper - 17/01/2006

This paper shows that the right to information that has emerged in the world in the past four decades is clearly a right of access to information rather than a narrower right of access to documents. Includes information on the Access to Information Laws in Europe as of Jan 2006.

The World’s First Freedom of Information Act - Published in 2006 by the Anders Chydenius Foundation

Publication on the 240th anniversary of the world´s first Freedom of Information legislation, adopted by the Swedish parliament in 1766. This publication includes the English translation of this ordinance on freedom of writing and the press. The enlightenment thinker and politician ’s  first freedom of information, Anders Chydenius (1729-1803) played a crucial role in creating the new law.

Council of Europe: Recommendation No. R (81) 19 - Adopted by the Committee of Ministers on 25/11/1981

Of the Committee of Ministers to Member States on the Access to Infortmation held by Public Authorities.

Books