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Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Freedom of information advocacy: a global snapshot

Ninety five countries now have a right to information or freedom of information law.
But the goal of a universal right of access is still a long way off, according to a report released on 8 July by the Freedom of Information Advocates Network (FOIAnet). The report provides an analysis of the worldwide right to information (RTI) movement by region.
Lydia Medland, of Access Info Europe, lead editor, said 

The report shows that advocates still have a long way to go to see their goal achieved of a universal right to information, however, it also clearly transmits the strength of the movement and their ability to effectively confront obstacles to change.

The report is available at 

Regional reports cover Africa, the Americas, Australasia and Oceania, East and Southeast Asia, Europe, the Middle East and North Africa and South Asia.

The Australasia and Oceania Chapter  (Peter Timmins is the author) commences on page 35. Some extracts appear below. 

In summary:

While RTI laws are well established in Australia and New Zealand, limited progress on legislated rights has been made in the Pacific, with the Cook Islands the only country to enact a law to date. Tonga introduced a government wide information access policy in 2012.

Australia’s decision to join 58 other countries in the Open Government Partnership is likely to provide new impetus to advocacy efforts and discussion of transparent, open and accountable government in Australia and the region, and may encourage New Zealand and other eligible countries to follow suit.

In Pacific island countries there are hopeful signs. There has been widespread embrace of a ‘good governance’ agenda with accountability, transparency and advancement of human rights parts of the mix. Government aid donors and international NGOs continue to assist developments of this kind in ways respectful of the regional and cultural context. The Tonga experiment with a government wide policy approach may provide experience in developing a ‘pacific way’. The Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative and interest in anti-corruption measures is highlighting the need for more and better disclosure of government information. And regional ties are strengthening in ways that should enable media organisations and civil society groups to lift the profile of RTI issues and concerns.

Contacts for background and comment on the report are:

Toby Mendel                                                            Lydia Medland

Executive Director                                                   Research and Campaigns Coordinator

Centre for Law and Democracy                               Access Info Europe

Email:                             Email:

Tel: +1 902 412 0872                                               Tel +34 91 365 65 58                                

Twitter: @law_democracy                                       Twitter: @Lydyact / @Access_Info

Extracts-Australasia and Oceania. Global Right to Information Update: An Analysis by Region, Freedom of Information Advocates Network

Australia and New Zealand were among the early RTI adopters, both enacting national information access laws thirty years ago.

Those laws emerged from public sector and public or administrative law reform initiatives that had been the subject of discussion and debate commencing in the nineteen sixties. Legal academics, public sector reformers and a small group of civil society activists were key advocates at the time.

Lawyers engaged in public or administrative law, academics, media organisations, and civil liberties, human rights and anti-corruption groups continue to contribute significantly to public discussion and debate on the issue, as do a small group of critics and commentators, bloggers and groups involved in particular areas of interest including welfare, the environment and public health.

The absence of high profile civil society groups that focus solely or largely on RTI issues contributed to a long period through the 1980s to mid-1990s where excessive government secrecy, particularly in Australia, re-emerged despite the existence of a reasonable right to information law.

Inquiries into the adequacy of the law by government law reform institutions promoted public discussion and debate in Australia in the mid-1990s and more recently in New Zealand.

Media organisations and journalists played an important role in advocacy that led to substantial improvements in the RTI law in Australia in recent years.

ICT professionals and open government activists with a focus on access to and use and reuse of digital information and data, have joined the cause in recent years.

Hundreds of thousands of Australians and New Zealanders have used  RTI and related laws over the years to access information held by government agencies (for example concerning their health, welfare and other benefits), or information about  their dealings with the police, immigration, education, and land use planning authorities, and to correct or amend incorrect or incomplete government records.

While significant and far reaching disclosures have resulted from use of the laws, they work less well when applicants seek access to information concerning broader aspects of policy development and government decision making.

In February 2013, the New Zealand Government responded to a Law Commission report following a three year review of the Official Information Act, choosing to act only on a handful of the commission’s 137 recommendations and indicating major reform was off the agenda for the time being.

A review of Australia’s Freedom of Information Act commenced in November 2012, with a report completed in June 2013 that is yet to be released. The terms of reference seem skewed in the direction of questioning positive but limited reforms undertaken in 2010.

The principal lessons learned from 30 years of experience with RTI in Australia and New Zealand are that the passage of an RTI law is the start, not the end of the journey; a culture of excessive secrecy and caution concerning disclosure of government information will not easily or automatically change; strong and ongoing leadership that reinforces the message is necessary at the highest levels of government; speedy access to a respected independent external review mechanism is a vital element if such laws are to achieve their purpose; and the media, civil society and other stakeholders need to maintain vigilance as information access gains can be easily lost in practice.

The twenty-two Pacific Island States and territories are a diverse group of developing nations where democracy and democratic practices are relatively new.

The constitution in some countries includes a right to information, but enabling laws have not been introduced. 

Only one, Cook Islands (population 11,700) has an RTI law. Tonga (100,000) adopted a government wide administrative RTI policy in June 2012.

The basic principles of democratic rule appear to be widely accepted and valued throughout the region despite varying degrees of instability in recent years in the three largest countries in the region, Papua New Guinea, and more seriously in Fiji, and the Solomon Islands.

Challenges in the promotion of RTI include that government capability throughout much of the region, particularly at the local level, is constrained by limited technical capacity, public service infrastructure, and financial resources; formal record keeping and record management generally has had a low priority; differences in population size, spread and density, history, culture, society, language, education, the stage of development and available resources mitigate against regional one-size fits all initiatives; civil society, while visible and engaged at local community level, is less influential at regional and national level; legislative bodies are often ill-equipped to exercise effective oversight of executive branch agencies and transparency regarding the workings of the executive branch of government is not a well- established tradition; cultural contexts often discourage the questioning of authority; and human rights advocacy, literacy and protection is not a high priority, central feature or concern in practice in many countries in the region.
Positive developments are that RTI features in discourse among government and non-government actors in the context of constitutional and government reform, freedom of speech, freedom of the press and human rights generally, anti-corruption, and development, particularly concerning extractive industries and national resources.
Good governance and development goals are referred to throughout the region as high government priorities. 

The main regional body, the Pacific Islands Forum actively promotes and supports programs and initiatives for governance improvement including increased transparency and accountability.

The Forum’s Pacific Plan includes steps to ‘bolster government and accountability institutions to enhance the transparency of political and economic processes’ and action to promote human rights and strengthen oversight institutions such as anti-corruption agencies and auditor-general offices.

Aid donors including the UNDP Pacific Centre, AusAID and the Commonwealth Pacific Governance Facility support the good government goal through a variety of grants and country programs.

The Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, the UNDP Pacific Centre and AusAID organised the 2008 Freedom of Information for Pacific Policy Makers Workshop. The UNDP Pacific Centre has conducted national RTI awareness workshops for government representatives and parliamentarians in Solomon Islands and Palau, and included sessions on RTI as part of social accountability training for civil society organisations and government officials in Fiji, Vanuatu, Federated States of Micronesia and Samoa.

The UNDP Pacific Centre Regional Anti-Corruption Project will also promote transparency and accountability through RTI.

NGOs are also active in the region. The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, based in New Delhi, has raised awareness about the importance of RTI, including through the publication of a report, The Status of the Right to Information in the Pacific Islands of the Commonwealth, in 2009.

Washington based Global Integrity conducted dialogues on key governance and anti-corruption challenges with civil society and other stakeholders in Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea in 2008, and Solomon Islands and Tonga in 2009.

Corruption is a major concern in many countries in the region and transparency is seen as an important anti-corruption measure.

Initiatives to assist media organisations and journalists to improve investigative reporting skills and to play a role in promoting right to information have included the Pacific Islands News Association (PINA) 2009 Media Summit on Access to Information, and regional media training events in 2010 and 2011, organised by the UNDP Pacific Centre and the International Federation of Journalists, Pacific.

The Cook Islands experience to date suggests the need for caution before rushing to adopt legislation from other jurisdictions without sufficient regard to cultural and practical issues that affect both the supply and demand side of the access to information equation.

The Official Information Act 2008 was largely borrowed from New Zealand, public awareness, training and records management issues were not addressed, and leadership and oversight functions were assigned to an underfunded and understaffed Ombudsman’s office.

According to the Fragile Freedom Report (pdf) published by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) Asia-Pacific in May 2012: 
“The two years since gradual implementation of the OIA began have not provided much evidence of change to entrenched systems and public sector behaviour. The OIA remains a cumbersome and largely  ineffective tool for local media, who have come dangerously close to losing confidence in its value. Media criticism of the law has ranged from the State’s failure to invest sufficient resources in its ownership and awareness building, to perceptions that it is an awkward tool that suffers from a convoluted mix of conditions, such as delays and exemptions...The Office of the Ombudsman has publicly acknowledged the persistence of a culture of secrecy within official circles. However, no attention is paid to investigating the deeper motives for persistent secrecy, and thus helping to lift the veil.”
A different approach was taken in Tonga where, with support from the Commonwealth Pacific Governance Facility and UNDP Pacific Centre, a government –wide access to information policy was adopted as a step towards legislation. The initiative emerged from consideration of broader political and governmental reforms, including the first democratic election in 2010. The policy came into effect on 1 July 2012, following extensive consultation to promote awareness and support within government involving record managers and others, and with external stakeholders including media and civil society groups. The policy provides for proactive publication of a wide range of information and free access to other information by request.There is a commitment to legislate an RTI law in the future.
In Papua New Guinea, the constitution recognises RTI, subject only to the need for such secrecy as is reasonably justifiable in a democratic society. Thirteen years ago, Transparency International Papua New Guinea proposed a bill to give effect to this provision, but it has not been acted upon. The National Anti Corruption Strategy holds out the promise of action on an enabling law.

In Papua New Guinea and other resource rich countries, the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative provides an opportunity for improved transparency regarding payments by resource companies to government and revenue received by those governments.

Australia, through AusAID, has committed $17.45 million (2007 to 2015) to the World Bank administered Multi-Donor Trust Fund and the EITI Secretariat to assist this initiative.

A government-civil society committee in Vanuatu is said to be preparing RTI legislation for cabinet consideration. Legislation has been mooted or discussed at various times in Nauru and Fiji, but  has not been acted upon to date.
There are signs of stirring regional media interest in pushing for more and better access to information rights. Writing in the Fragile Freedom Report in 2012, Pacific Freedom Forum founder Lisa Williams-Lahiri issued this call for action: 
“At this point in time, a fractured and poorly managed Pacific media regionalism is itself providing the biggest threat to media freedom and FOI. We will always have our dictators and tyrants to deal with, but we need to set our house in order... Without a resourced and effective monitoring, advocacy and coordination effort owned and endorsed by all of us, from our different parts of the region, we will continue to remain in crisis mode. We will not be able to dream of excellence and standards outside the ad hoc pockets that do exist. We will not be able to hope to grow media literacy amongst our youth, leaders and communities so that the Right to Know is an accepted flip-side to the right to ask the taboo questions.”
Media advocacy may often appear as self-interest flying the flag of the public interest, but experience elsewhere suggests the media can play an important leadership role in promoting RTI, particularly in the absence of other strong pressures on government.

Communication means and capabilities in the region are changing rapidly, new and old media are being more assertive, and civil society is building on strong traditional local roots.

While global practices and experience remain relevant, progress on extending RTI in Oceania will depend heavily on ensuring that what is proposed is contextually and culturally relevant to countries in this diverse region.

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