Freedom of information is a fundamental human right as appears in the Universal Declaration for Human Rights (UDHR) and in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). There has been a veritable revolution globally in terms of the right to access information held by public authorities, known variously as the right to information (RTI), freedom of information or access to information. At its root, this idea stands for the proposition that public bodies do not hold information for themselves but as custodians on behalf of the general public. The extent of this RTI revolution can be shown by looking at the dramatic developments that have taken place, most particularly in the last twenty years. The first country to adopt an RTI law was Sweden, as far back as 1766, but the modern era of RTI starts 200 years later, when a number of almost exclusively Western countries started to adopt RTI laws. By 1990, 13 countries had adopted RTI laws, all but one of them, Colombia, an established Western democracy. At the time, it is fair to say that these laws were not regarded as giving effect to a human right but, rather, as governance reforms which would make government more efficient and responsive.
Access to Information
Today, the picture is very different indeed. As of the end of 2012, 93 countries had adopted RTI laws, and it is probably fair to say that another 30 or so are in the process of doing so. There are three Arab countries among those 93 – namely Jordan (which adopted a law in 2007), Tunisia (2011) and Yemen (2012) – while developed drafting processes are taking place in Egypt and Morocco. Many of the numerous new constitutions adopted since 1990 recognize RTI as a fundamental human right, and this includes new constitutions adopted in Morocco (2011) and Egypt (2012), as well as the new draft constitution being prepared in Tunisia.
In this respect, right to information laws reflect the fundamental premise that government is supposed to serve the people. There are, however, a number of more utilitarian goals underlying widespread recognition of the right to information. The international human rights NGO, ARTICLE 19, Global Campaign for Free Expression, has described information as, “the oxygen of democracy”. Democracy is also about accountability and good governance. The public have a right to scrutinize the actions of their leaders and to engage in full and open debate about those actions. To be able to do this, they must have access to information about the performance of the government and this, in turn, depends on access to information about the state of the economy, social systems and other matters of public concern. It also depends on having access to information about what government has done, how public funds are spent, and whether governments have fulfilled their promises (and if not, why). Perhaps less obvious, but no less important, RTI improves service delivery and development effectiveness. In many countries, individuals have used RTI to promote better service delivery. Finally, an aspect of the right to information that is often neglected is the use of RTI to facilitate a competitive and successful business environment. In many cases, government holds information that is useful to businesses in relation to their core activities, for example that helps them develop their products or target their marketing more successfully.