Freedom of Information: A Comparative Study

By Norah Mallaney for the Global Integrity Commons

The open and convenient access to government information is essential to democracy. Free debate and accountability require transparent governance structures that encourage citizens to engage with public officials. However, our data from the Global Integrity Report shows that the legislation and practice of this right vary greatly across the globe. Here we look at the best and worst in 57 countries.

Access to information is a core component in Global Integrity’s research toolkit, the Integrity Indicators, a series of questions that measure the performance of key anti-corruption frameworks at the national level. Every year, we ask local research teams to assess whether citizens have a legal right to access to information, and whether citizens can in practice use these rights to get information about their government.

Low Scores: Africa and the Middle East

In 2008, three of the 57 countries we studied did not have a freedom of information (FOI) law: Nigeria, Ghana and Iraq. Our researcher in Nigeria noted that the FOI bill has been sitting in the Nigerian congress since it was first proposed in 1999. We found a similar situation in Ghana, where an article exists in the Ghanaian constitution to ensure citizen rights to information, but this article had not yet been brought before Parliament for approval.

One of our Key Findings for the Global Integrity Report: 2008, was that public access to information is the most serious transparency issue facing many Middle Eastern and North African nations. Privacy International’s map on National Freedom of Information Laws, Regulations and Bills 2008 only confirms our assessment of the region. In regional terms, the Middle East and North Africa are the worst in the world at FOI, which we discussed at length in a previous analysis.

Even in countries with weak legal frameworks guaranteeing access, citizens can sometimes gain access to government documents, but only on a case-by base basis. Our researcher in Ghana notes: “Although there is no access to information legislation, citizens can obtain information from government agencies depending on the approach and the agency’s goodwill.” And, in Iraq, “There is no established mechanism [for citizen access to information]. But some government offices, such as the Board of Supreme Auditing, publish reports on their websites.” Without the proper institutions, citizens can easily be dissuaded with long and ineffective application processes or by the need to massage the process with bribes.

Best Scores: Europe, Japan and… Jordan?

On the other side of this issue, we have the all-star team of access to information. This list includes: Italy, Japan, Bulgaria, Turkey, Jordan, Hungary and Lithuania. In these nations, FOI laws ensure the right to information and functioning institutions exist where citizens can claim that right.

Jordan is notable standout here, doing much better than it’s regional peers, which we discussed in a previous analysis.

Considering that the European Union emphasis on “openness” as a guiding principal for its member-states, it is not surprising that the eastern-European nations of Bulgaria, Turkey, Hungary and Lithuania would have strong FOI credentials to coincide with their recent or ongoing applications for EU membership. Lithuania’s 1996 Law on the Provision of Information to the Public even directly states its secondary purpose as “ensuring the application of European Union legal acts.”

In a recent post to the Global Integrity Commons blog, Daniela discusses how governance reforms in Eastern European nations can be directly tied to the region’s drive for EU membership. While the perks of EU status have undoubtedly factored into the recent FOI legislation in Lithuania, Hungary and Bulgaria, there are other internal factors at work.

Canada and the Unites States (studied in 2007) both miss the best-of list with moderate scores. In both countries, researchers noted long delays in government replies to information requests.

Secret Police Files

The secrecy and paranoia of the communist era have left deep imprints on the former-Soviet republics and the USSR satellite countries. Government permeated every-day life, with agents literally listening into kitchen-table conversations through wire-taps. While these regimes had seemingly total access to the lives of their citizens, an impenetrable wall was drawn around national leadership, blocking citizen access to the decision-making process.

Data from the Global Integrity Report shows that with the development of effective institutions, such as a freedom of information acts, the lack of transparency found in Soviet-style governance structures is disappearing in the region. As these nations open citizen access to government documents, public curiosities surrounding secret police files from the Cold War-era have raised tough societal dilemmas. Previously heavily guarded, these files expose the degree to which individuals were monitored by the government and implicate those involved, both as police agents and as collaborators from ordinary society.

Slowly, each of the former Soviet sphere nations has allowed for varying degrees of citizen access to these surveillance records:

– In Bulgaria, files from the infamous Darzhavna Sigurnost communist-era police agency were opened in 2006. A Files Commission was created in 2007 and the group has slowly released names of former communist police collaborators in small batches, like the names printed in Novintine, a Sophia news agency, in October 2008. As another part of the reopening of these secret files, citizens are able to access their personal records as created by the Darzhavna Sigurnost agency.

Hungary has an even more open policy with its communist-era secret police files. Beginning in 2003, all Hungarians can request to see their personal records and victim can receive the names of their government informants.

Poland (which still scored well in the 2008 Report, despite missing the top-tier mark) opened its Communist-era secret files were opened in 2006, allowing citizens to request access to their personal files and to have their names cleared through the courts, in cases of misrepresentation. In 2007, Poland increased the scope of its political vetting process, requiring that lower-level public servant such as teachers, judges and heads of state-owned-enterprises (as well as more prominent public officials) declare their involvement with the secret police. These statements were then checked against the secret files, not necessarily to detect conspiracy, but to verify that officials were not lying about their past. However, the inaccuracies and sketchy recording practices of these files have caused many cases where individuals have been wrongfully identified as collaborators.

– In 2006, Lithuania opened its files to unlimited public access. This decision defies the trend within the former USSR countries, where many have made the choice to keep these documents hidden.

As each of these Eastern European nations works towards more transparent governance structures, they are being forced to confront their collective and individual memories of the Cold War era. Policies of access to information have forced these memories of intimidation, paranoia and disappearances into the public spectrum, creating internal dissonance in many of these former Soviet satellites. However, the existence of the right to access to information and the corresponding mechanisms are essential steps to building more open and transparent societies that engage with government rather than fearing it.

—  By Norah Mallaney for the Global Integrity Commons

Image: a US DoD staffer’s notes from 9/11/01 notes that attack plans were to include things “related and not”. Obtained via FOI by Thad Anderson.