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By Blair Glencorse and Narayan Adhikari. The Right to Information (RTI) or Freedom of Information (FoI) movement has made huge strides since the first FoI law was enacted in Sweden in 1766. Freedom of Information was included (as Article 19) in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, described by the UN General Assembly as “a fundamental Human Right and the touchstone of all the freedoms…” But it was not until the late 20th century that advocates of greater transparency really began to push for laws that guaranteed access to information. Movements around the idea subsequently emerged (the Indian movement under Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) being perhaps the most famous) and forced legal protections- in 1990, only 13 countries granted citizens the right to information through law; today more than 90 countries do so.
This is hugely important for accountability because government is a medium through which information should be collected from and disseminated to citizens. People should have the right to use this information to hold the state to account. The public has a right to know, for example, how the government is spending taxes and where policies and programs are being implemented well or poorly. Secrecy is sometimes entrenched in government systems, and laws of this sort provide one tool that can be used by citizens to open them up.
Both Nepal and Liberia have relatively progressive and well-designed RTI or FoI laws in place (Nepal’s law was passed in 2007 and is ranked 19th globally; Liberia’s law was passed in 2010 and is ranked an impressive 4th globally by the excellent Global Right to Information Ratings), but implementation of the legal frameworks have proven problematic. This has been a result of- in both cases to varying degrees: a lack of political will, bureaucratic inertia, complex and confusing legal language in the laws, under-estimation of the costs of responding to requests, ineffective information management systems and a lack of awareness among citizens as to the existence of the laws, among other issues.
The initial energy that precipitates the passing of these kinds of laws often dissipates after the laws themselves are passed. The Right to Information is important, but with it comes the responsibility to use that information over time to hold the government to account, or the law itself is useless. In Nepal, the Lab recently carried out a series of discussions around the country on RTI issues. As a first step, we identified significant demand from journalists for simple, useable materials that could help them better understand how to use the RTI law more effectively as part of their work.
In response, we worked with Citizens Campaign for the Right to Informationto develop a contextualized RTI Toolkit. These materials provide step by step instructions on how to submit requests for information under the RTI law; information on potential problems; tips to overcome challenges; and a comprehensive set of international examples to illustrate how the use of information can tackle the abuse of power by governments. The toolkit is now being adapted into different forms- like pocket books and flashcards- that can be used by journalists in the field.
In Liberia, the Lab is also talking to organizations working on these issues- such as the Carter Center and the Federation of Liberian Youth- to see how best to catalyze and support creative FoI initiatives along these lines and engage citizens on FoI issues. Experience from around the world indicates that passing RTI or FoI laws is an important step- but is only the beginning of a much larger process. It is the responsibility of citizens themselves to use this information to hold governments to account.
Blair Glencorse is Executive Director of the Accountability Lab. Narayan Adhikari is Country Representative in Nepal for the Accountability Lab. You can follow the Lab on Twitter @accountlab