Accountability and the Right to Information

By Gennie Allcott, Accountability Lab Summer Resident

Last month, I attended a seminar on how to fight corruption in Washington DC held by Judicial Watch: a government watchdog organization that seeks to expose and combat government corruption in DC. It has been named one of Washington’s top 10 most effective government watchdog organizations and exemplifies how citizens can use Freedom of Information (FOI) laws to hold power holders to account.

The seminar, led by the organization’s president Tom Finley, was specifically organized for interns across various sectors (think tanks, the media, offices on Capitol Hill, etc.), thereby serving to spread the spirit of anti-corruption from the bottom up across the multitude of entities in Washington, DC. While the work of the Accountability Lab is mainly in difficult parts of the developing world – where corruption is rife – it is worth remembering that this is an issue that still needs to be fought in the US and other more developed countries.

Judicial Watch’s seminar provided a refreshing reminder that corruption is a global phenomenon, which must be tackled both at home and abroad. There are many appalling abuses of power occurring right here in DC which Judicial Watch regularly exposes in their “Corruption Chronicles,”.  Judicial Watch and the Accountability Lab embody the shared belief that not only should power-holders be responsible in the implementation of their mandates but we as citizens, have a duty to engage with and monitor the practices of our government and the behaviour of our elected officials.

The most valuable tool for Judicial Watch is the Federal Government’sFreedom of Information Act- a law established in 1966 which allows for the full or partial disclosure of previously unreleased information and documents controlled by the US government. In just the last year Judicial Watch has filed over 1,000 FOIA requests and filed over 115 lawsuits to try and further open up government records and processes to the wider public.

Freedom of Information (FoI) laws are a central component of a transparent, effective, and equitable government, and an open and responsible society. These laws serve as an accountability mechanism by not only making public bodies more transparent and uncovering instances of government abuse, but also deterring future abuses of power.

However, in many developing countries, adequate FoI laws either do not yet exist or, as in Nepal, are completely under-utilized by citizens and media. The Lab has begun to respond to this need by working with the Citizens Campaign for Right to Information to develop a “RTI Toolkit” to help Nepali journalists better utilize Nepal’s 2007 Right to Information (RTI) Act and the provisions within it for investigative journalism.  The toolkit provides step-by-step instructions on how to submit RTI requests for information and how to overcome any obstacles or opposition that may arise. The Lab’s wiki page for the toolkit has already been accessed more than 561 times and the toolkit is currently being adapted into a pocket-size version so that journalists can easily access it when in the field. We hope that with the help of this toolkit, Nepali journalists will be able to disseminate information on government processes and policy to the broader public and ultimately serve as a catalyst for greater government transparency and accountability

As Tom Fitton so aptly pointed out at the Judicial Watch event: “government accountability is a constant struggle that never ends.” It is, therefore, imperative that we work to fully utilize the FOI laws available to us to demand greater accountability from our governments both at home and abroad.

Last month, I attended a seminar on how to fight corruption in Washington DC held by Judicial Watch: a government watchdog organization that seeks to expose and combat government corruption in DC. It has been named one of Washington’s top 10 most effective government watchdog organizations and exemplifies how citizens can use Freedom of Information (FOI) laws to hold power holders to account.

The seminar, led by the organization’s president Tom Finley, was specifically organized for interns across various sectors (think tanks, the media, offices on Capitol Hill, etc.), thereby serving to spread the spirit of anti-corruption from the bottom up across the multitude of entities in Washington, DC. While the work of the Accountability Lab is mainly in difficult parts of the developing world – where corruption is rife – it is worth remembering that this is an issue that still needs to be fought in the US and other more developed countries.

Judicial Watch’s seminar provided a refreshing reminder that corruption is a global phenomenon, which must be tackled both at home and abroad. There are many appalling abuses of power occurring right here in DC which Judicial Watch regularly exposes in their “Corruption Chronicles,”.  Judicial Watch and the Accountability Lab embody the shared belief that not only should power-holders be responsible in the implementation of their mandates but we as citizens, have a duty to engage with and monitor the practices of our government and the behaviour of our elected officials.

The most valuable tool for Judicial Watch is the Federal Government’sFreedom of Information Act- a law established in 1966 which allows for the full or partial disclosure of previously unreleased information and documents controlled by the US government. In just the last year Judicial Watch has filed over 1,000 FOIA requests and filed over 115 lawsuits to try and further open up government records and processes to the wider public.

Freedom of Information (FoI) laws are a central component of a transparent, effective, and equitable government, and an open and responsible society. These laws serve as an accountability mechanism by not only making public bodies more transparent and uncovering instances of government abuse, but also deterring future abuses of power.

However, in many developing countries, adequate FoI laws either do not yet exist or, as in Nepal, are completely under-utilized by citizens and media. The Lab has begun to respond to this need by working with the Citizens Campaign for Right to Information to develop a “RTI Toolkit” to help Nepali journalists better utilize Nepal’s 2007 Right to Information (RTI) Act and the provisions within it for investigative journalism.  The toolkit provides step-by-step instructions on how to submit RTI requests for information and how to overcome any obstacles or opposition that may arise. The Lab’s wiki page for the toolkit has already been accessed more than 561 times and the toolkit is currently being adapted into a pocket-size version so that journalists can easily access it when in the field. We hope that with the help of this toolkit, Nepali journalists will be able to disseminate information on government processes and policy to the broader public and ultimately serve as a catalyst for greater government transparency and accountability

As Tom Fitton so aptly pointed out at the Judicial Watch event: “government accountability is a constant struggle that never ends.” It is, therefore, imperative that we work to fully utilize the FOI laws available to us to demand greater accountability from our governments both at home and abroad.

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