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 are – or should be – acting as “servants of the people”. That’s why we all have the right of access to the information held by public bodies on our behalf.

International standards and jurisprudence have confirmed that this information belongs to the public. The Council of Europe Convention on Access to Official Documents (2009) has enshrined the right to know thus: “all official documents are in principle public and can be withheld subject only to the protection of other rights and legitimate interests”. In line with this, access to information has been recognised as a fundamental human right by the European Human Rights Court.

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, policies and plans. 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.

This right of access to information places two 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, according to the prefernece of the requester.

Cover photo: International Open Data Conference via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)