“[It] is ultimately up to you to keep your government accountable. Activists and watchdogs can help, but ultimately the best and only thing to keep governments in line, at least in democracies, is popular will.” -Centre for Law and Democracy
That is the take away from the International Right to Know Day AMA (Ask Me Anything) thread hosted on the popular Internet sharing site Reddit this Sunday. Transparency experts from Canada, Colombia, Bulgaria, India, and South Africa stepped up to answer questions from users around the globe. The team of FOI advocates spent 8 hours speaking on current transparency laws, advocacy efforts, and of course the old Reddit AMA stand-by “Would you rather fight 100 duck-sized horses or one horse-sized duck?”
Here are some of the highlights from this weekend’s discussion (all quotes presented in their original formatting):
Reddit user batteryalwayslow: Where do you draw the line between right to know vs national security?
Toby Mendel, Center for Law and Democracy: Tough one but actually a lot of work has been done on this issue. Have a look at the Tshwanee Principles (http://www.opensocietyfoundations.org/publications/global-principles-national-security-and-freedom-information-tshwane-principles) which elaborate this issue in great detail. Obviously when a real national security interest is engaged, it trumps the right to know. But there are a number of subtleties to this. First, international law recognises a public interest override, whereby even if a national security interest is engaged, if the overall public interest would be served by disclosure, that should dominate (so the NSA revelations would be an example of that). Second, government’s often claim national security interests even when there are none, so claims need to be carefully scrutinised.
Reddit user werelock: If you had to summarize transparency legislation that you wish more countries would enact, what would you say? Not the why but the actual bullet points of how/what.
Thanks so very much for your efforts! Transparency in government is something I’m very interested in learning more and seeing more of.
Toby Mendel, Centre for Law and Democracy: This gets a bit complicated but we can say there are 5 main features of a good law: 1) Broad presumption of openness covering all information held by all public bodies. 2) Good procedures for making and processing requests (clear timelines, assistance, limits on what can be charged, etc.) 3) Limited exceptions (i.e. clear and narrow rules on when a request my be refused) 4) An independent administrative oversight body. 5) Sanctions for obstruction of access and protections for good faith disclosures pursuant to the law.
Bit technical but you did ask 🙂
Reddit user JackStargazer: Which countries (if any) do you feel currently have the best records in terms of access to information and transparency? Are there existing versions of FoI legislation you think should become the gold standard, or is it all generally flawed?
Michael Karanicolas, Centre for Law and Democracy: It’s not who you would expect! CLD actually has done a rating of the different RTI systems in the world, available at www.RTI-Rating.org, which shows that the best laws are from Serbia, Slovenia and India. India in particular is worth checking out, due to the transformative impact that law has had on the relationship between individuals and their governments.
All laws are flawed in some ways, but there are “gold standards” in the form of model legislation. The OAS has a model law on access to information here: http://www.oas.org/dil/access_to_information_model_law.htm, and there’s another good one by Article 19, an NGO, here: http://www.article19.org/data/files/medialibrary/1796/model-freedom-of-information-law.pdf.
You can read the full discussion thread on the Reddit AMA Forums