Fast Facts: Freedom of information laws around the world

Rappler.com
Fast Facts: Freedom of information laws around the world
Freedom of information laws have been used as tools to prevent or expose abuses, improve delivery of services and even protect public health and welfare

MANILA, Philippines – Whether you call them right to information, access to information, or freedom of information laws, they have one common purpose: to make information available, prescribe procedures through which information may be accessed, as well as define limits of access.

Here’s a quick guide to Freedom of Information (FOI) laws around the world: 

  • Sweden became the first country to legislate access to information when it enacted a law entitled His Majesty’s Gracious Ordinance Relating to Freedom of Writing and of the Press in 1766. The law was largely motivated by the parliament’s interest in access to information held by the King.
  • Finland, which used to be part of Sweden, enacted its own access to information law almost 200 years later, in 1951.
  • Outside of Europe, the United States was the first to enact an FOI law (1966).
  • At least 95 countries have approved FOI legislation as of 2013. 
  • The following countries passed FOI laws in 2013: Guyana, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, and Spain.
  • The map below shows the number of years countries around the world have had FOI laws. The bluest section is Sweden with 248 years. Countries with no existing FOI laws were given a negative 100 value and are colored gray in the map.  

  • In Asia, countries with FOI laws remain a minority. Only 15 out of 49 Asian countries have such laws: Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Japan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Nepal, New Zealand, Pakistan, South Korea, Taiwan, Tajikistan, Thailand, Uzbekistan, China.
  • In Southeast Asia, only Thailand and Indonesia have FOI laws
  • The Council of Europe’s Convention on Access to Official Documentswhich was signed in June 2009 by 12 European countries, is the first internationally binding agreement that “recognizes a general right of access” to official government information.

 Quality, strength of FOI laws

The map below shows ratings of FOI laws of countries around the world. It is based on data from the Global Right to Information Rating website which uses the Right to Information Legislation Rating Methodology developed by Access Info Europe and the Center for Law and Democracy.

  • When the strength of FOI laws of 89 countries was assessed using the above methodology, the following countries topped the ratings: Serbia, India, Slovenia, Liberia, El Salvador, Mexico, Antigua, Azerbaijan and Ukraine.  
  • These are mostly countries either undergoing democratic consolidation, have undergone authoritarian rule, or have gone through major corruption controversies.

  • Serbia, which topped the right to information law rating list, passed the Serbian law on Free Access to Information of Public Importance in 2004, as part of democratic rebuilding efforts following the fall of the Slobodan Milosevic regime in 2000.
  • Slovenia, which passed its Act on Access to Information of Public Character in 2003, was formerly part of Communist Yugoslavia until it declared independence in 1991. 
  • India’s Freedom of Information Act of 2005 was enacted after a 25-year legislative battle. Its first draft, passed in 2002, was criticized for having numerous exemptions and no penalties for non-disclosure.
  • Mexico’s FOIA, part of the country’s democratic transition in fighting corruption and forcing government accountability and openness, is the first in Latin America to allow access to information on human rights abuses.
  • Of the countries that ranked in the top 10 for FOI law quality, Ukraine has the oldest law. Passed in 1992 and subsequently amended in 2000 and 2002, it was pushed by civil society groups, media and government representatives. Implementation of the law continues to be hampered as the country continues to deal with civil unrest and political instability.

FOI and Open Data

  • In many countries, particularly those with newer FOI laws, freedom of information laws have been expanded in scope to include access to machine-readable data or Open Data.
  • An October 2013 census on the status of open government data in 70 countries, or the Open Data Index,  shows the following countries leading the pack when it comes to official data sharing : United Kingdom, the United States of America, Denmark, Norway, Netherlands, Finland, Sweden, New Zealand, Australia and Canada. 
  • Interestingly, of these 10 countries, only Finland has an FOI law that got high marks (above 100) in the RTI laws ratings.
  • Most of these countries, however, have decades-old access to information regimes (centuries in the case of Sweden) and long established democratic traditions.
  • Of the ODI top 10, the UK has the youngest law, passed in 2000. The UK has a very robust Open Data Portal

FOI and governance indicators

The chart below shows how countries that enacted FOI laws fared in the World Governance Index compared to those countries with no existing laws. Taking into consideration correlation between ratings in the WGI and the country’s wealth, the chart also uses the size of the bubbles to represent relative wealth of the country (per capita gross domestic product).

On default, countries that have enacted an FOI law are represented by red bubbles, while countries that have no FOI laws are blue. 

You can tick “trails” to select a single country and to see how that country fared in the WGI indicators for “control of corruption” over time. 

In the chart, the year the country enacted an FOI law is represented as year “0”(yellow green bubble).  When you hit the play button, the bubbles will turn green as it gets to year “0”.

 Impact of FOI

  • FOI have been used as a tool to prevent or expose abuses, improve delivery of services and even protect people’s health and welfare.
  • In February 2007, the UK Information Commission invoked the FOIA and ruled on the release of excessive travel expenses of Members of Parliament, especially Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Tony Blair.
  • In the US, civil rights groups have invoked FOIA to gain access to data on a number of wrongly convicted capital punishment prisoners. 
  • In Mexico, the FOI law has been successfully invoked a number of times to open up records on human rights abuses.
  • After India’s 25-year struggle to pass an access to information law, state and information commissions in the subcontinent are now overwhelmed by over 2 million access to information requests Rappler.com, with Nigel Tan, Leilani Chavez, Wayne Manuel and Gemma Bagayaua-Mendoza

 

Related stories:

Sources:

rti-rating.org, rti-rating.org country data including their FOI laws, right2info.org, right2info.org FOI cases,  legislationline.org, freedominfo.org, Open Data Index, World Governance Indicators, Access Info Europe, UN Treaty Collection, various news websites

 

The research used in this article was supported by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom.  

Documents and magnifying glass image from shutterstock

 

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