Right to Information: What are the governments afraid of?

Right to Information (RTI) is the tool that empowers citizens to question their government and its policies. RTI or Freedom of Information (FOI) has helped to expose corruption, lack of accountability, and lack of transparency in parts of the world where it has become part of the legislation. Now, Citizens don’t want to feel alienated from their state institutions and their day-to-day operations that play a major role in an individual’s life. RTI is an essential element in people participating in a democratic nation. According to a report by Open Society Foundations, as of May 2019, 127 out of 193 UN member states plus 2 non-member states guarantee the right of access to information through national or federal laws. Now, RTI activism has taken an upward trajectory, people are becoming more aware of their fundamental rights and they are demanding an assertive role in governing processes.

There is no doubt that RTI legislation has given people the freedom to inquire about institutional policies and their mechanisms, but on the other hand, RTI activists have experienced the absence of the practice of proactive disclosure and also the failure in the implementation of RTI laws. According to Article 19 (an international non-profit organization), 90 percent of the world population lives in a country with RTI law or policy, but still, questions of accountability, transparency, corruption, and rule of law are not being addressed.

Governments have always tried to get away with access to information requests. Afghanistan ranks top in RTI ranking with a score of 139 out of 150 making it the strongest of access to information laws in the world, but this law is not being implemented properly. Despite its strong clauses, journalists have reported having a hard time getting information from government departments. Recently, in a joint statement given through the platform of Amnesty International, the 30 Afghan media organizations said they were being denied access to information from several government departments, including the Supreme Court and the Attorney General’s Office. In the past, journalists also reported the misconduct and abuse by the state officials for inquiring public information.

In 2019, amendments were made in India’s Right to Information Act, 2005 harming the autonomy of all information commissions and giving Central Government the discretionary power over information commissions. This complete subordination of information commissions can only seize the citizen’s right of access to information making the RTI not workable.

State departments of the United States of America (USA) are also obstructing the public information in the name of the COVID-19 crisis. This obstruction of vital information can only mean that freedom of information is not being given the priority that it deserves. Access to information can help both the individual and state to make informed decisions, but with this hindrance, chances of happening the opposite increase.

Does the question rise if the leading world democracies are afraid to practice the access of information laws then what practices do the countries with up-coming RTI legislation should follow? If current RTI practices cannot eradicate the menace of corruption, lack of accountability, and lack of transparency, then governments need to take strong measures to implement access to information laws. Information commissions ought to be given full autonomy to maintain check and balance on state departments and their dealings. States should ensure the mechanisms for the advocacy campaigns; media platforms should be used to raise awareness. And, Citizens should be respected for asking public information as it is their vital right.      

Blog Post by Ali Javed – Program Officer – CPDI

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