Public Information Still Hard to GET, Five Country Survey Finds

For immediate release
Contact Helen Darbishire: helend@justiceinitiative.org

New York, September 28, 2004

Access to public information is increasing worldwide, but many countries are lagging far behind, said a new study.

The pilot survey monitoring freedom of information was released by the Open Society Justice Initiative on September 28, designated “Right to Know Day” by global FOI groups.

Conducted in Armenia, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Peru and South Africa, the survey marks one of the most comprehensive efforts yet to test the limits of government transparency. It involved the submission of 100 information requests to 18 different public institutions by a range of actors in each country. On average only 35 percent of requests for information were fulfilled. Many requests not explicitly rejected were simply ignored—in total, 36 percent of requests submitted resulted in tacit or “mute” refusals.

“New access to information laws in many countries provide a strong foundation for transparency of public bodies, but still fall short of what can fairly be termed open government,” said James Goldston, Executive Director of the Justice Initiative. “In just over a decade, more than 40 countries worldwide have adopted freedom of information laws. This study shows that, even once a law is adopted, effective implementation remains a major challenge.”

Interviews with government officials revealed a number of common obstacles in enforcing FOI laws. These include a lack of political will at senior levels to encourage transparency, inadequate information management, insufficient training of public officials, and an excess of bureaucratic obstacles to timely information release.

In some countries it proved near impossible to submit requests for information orally or without filling out an official form. Persons belonging to vulnerable or excluded groups, such as disabled individuals or ethnic minorities, were less likely to receive positive reactions than journalists or NGOs submitting the same requests.

A surprise result was that short timeframes for official responses, far from posing an obstacle to information release as some feared, appear to improve the chances of positive reactions. Peru, the country with the highest rating of the five, also permits the least time to officials to respond: seven working days.

The initial results and recommendations are available on the Justice Initiative website: http://www.justiceinitiative.org/db/resource2?res_id=102207

Right to Know Day is marked by freedom of information advocates across the world as part of a wider campaign to promote knowledge about and use of the public’s right to access information held by government. This is the second year that the date, chosen because the global Freedom of Information Advocates Network was founded on this day in 2002, is celebrated by non-governmental organizations worldwide. The range of activities in 2004 includes awards for “most open government body” (and booby prizes for closed institutions), TV advertisements and media campaigns, new reports on the state of access to information in a number of countries, and the holding of training workshops and seminars. More information can be found at http://www.foiadvocates.net

The Open Society Justice Initiative, an operational program of the Open Society Institute (OSI), pursues law reform activities grounded in the protection of human rights, and contributes to the development of legal capacity for open societies. The Justice Initiative combines litigation, legal advocacy, technical assistance, and the dissemination of knowledge to secure advances in five priority areas: national criminal justice, international justice, freedom of information and expression, equality and citizenship, and anticorruption. Its offices are in Abuja, Budapest, and New York:http://www.justiceinitiative.org
filed 28.9.04


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