International Herald Tribune 2003-10-11
The Right to Know is Gaining around the World
by Thomas S. Blanton*
WASHINGTON - Last month, Armenia became the 51st country to guarantee
its citizens the right to know what their government is up to. Armenia's
new freedom of information law is the latest outpost of the worldwide
movement towards opening government files - a movement that took off in
the 1990's and just this year also brought in the world's second most
populous country, India, and one of China's largest cities, Guangzhou.
The new openness laws vary tremendously, face huge implementation problems,
and often receive only lip service from
bureaucrats. But the trend is producing much more government accountability,
and often dramatic headlines. For example:
Requests under Japan's 2001 access law revealed that the government tried
to limit the geographic definition of areas
affected by "Minamata disease" (mercury poisoning) in order
to reduce compensation payments.
Requests under Mexico's 2002 law are pressuring the government's human
rights commission to address more than 3,400
complaints lodged by citizens, of which only a fraction were resolved
last year, mostly in secret. A request under Delhi's
2001 state level Right to Information Act for documents on a promised
sewer (supposedly under construction since 1983) in
the Sunder Nagari neighborhood embarrassed the government into finally
completing the project.
British journalists waiting for the 2005 implementation of Britain's
new access law used Sweden's (the oldest in the world,
dating from 1766) to obtain letters from Prime Minister Tony Blair to
the Swedish prime minister, after Blair's government
refused to release the documents, citing possible damage to foreign relations.
South African opposition parties used the new South Africa access law
to open internal government documents on a
controversial oil contract with Nigeria, all of the benefits from which
went to an offshore company rather than to the
South African people. Meanwhile, the Nigerian Parliament is on the verge
of passing its own access law.
Irish reporters used their 1997 freedom of information law to show collusion
among four private license-holding companies
and the government that has stymied the development of wireless and broadband
Internet access in Ireland.
Israel's freedom of information law compelled the Yad Vashem memorial
council to open its files showing how it chooses
which "righteous gentiles" to honor on its "Avenue of the
Righteous" (non-Jews who helped Jews during the Holocaust).
The Bulgarian non-governmental organization, Access to Information Program,
used Bulgaria's freedom of information law to
reveal that the government's minister of science and education had illegally
(and under the table) rented out his agency's
lobby to a private company.
Ironically, civil society and government reformers around the globe are
making this extraordinary progress at the very time
that the United States is backing away from its previous leadership in
open government. Even before the terrorist attacks
of Sept. 11, Congress had ordered a re-review of the hundreds of millions
of pages declassified under President Bill
Clinton (more than all his predecessors put together), on the theory that
nuclear-related information might be in those
files. At a cost of tens of millions of dollars, this full employment
program for securocrats has actually turned up mostly
obsolete data on former locations of U.S. nuclear weapons - embarrassing
for host governments like Japan's, which deceived
their own people on the subject, but hardly fodder for terrorist bomb
Also before Sept. 11, the Bush administration clamped down on presidential
records, and covered up the oil industry's
influence in energy policymaking by Vice President Dick Cheney. After
Sept. 11, Attorney General John Ashcroft told federal
agencies to look for reasons to withhold information, and President George
W. Bush's executive order on secrecy deleted the
Clinton admonition of "when in doubt, release." No doubt is
allowed in today's White House. While the U.S. Freedom of
Information Act continues its status as the most-used in the world (over
two million requests per year at a cost of about a
dollar per citizen), delays and backlogs are mounting as top officials
throw sand in the gears.
The administration's reflexive secrecy will be self-defeating. The bipartisan
Congressional investigation of Sept. 11
concluded that an informed public would be our country's best weapon against
terrorism. After all, the Unabomber was only
caught after newspapers published his screed and his brother recognized
the voice. The right to know fights terrorism,
corruption, and repression. The world is embracing, while Washington willfully
forgets, the familiar finding by Justice
Louis D. Brandeis: "sunlight is the best disinfectant."
*The writer is director of the National Security Archive at George Washington
University in Washington D.C., and managing
editor of www.freedominfo.org, a web network of international access advocates.