Access to information helps us to participate in public life
In a democratic state, if people are going to make decisions, influence the government through openly expressing their public opinion, discuss important political issues, it’s best if they’re well-informed. Without access to information, and knowledge of the society they live in, this can be difficult – there can be no informed discussion of a range of available options, no voting in accordance with one’s best interests and beliefs, no meaningful public policy discussions, and no informed political debate.
Access to information is important for holding our elected leaders to account
Without access to information, citizens are unable to hold their government accountable. Access to information such as annual reports or policy and legislative reviews allows for the monitoring of government performance. As the government demonstrates its accountability, trust in the government grows, creating a healthy relationship between the government and its citizens.If people do not know what their government is doing, and the government lacks transparency, this can harm the good functioning of a state. In an opaque society where people cannot find out about their government’s actions, rumour corruption and conspiracies can become common, damaging economic activity, deterring local and foreign investors and scaring off foreign aid providers. This can make it very difficult for people to escape poverty.
Access to information supports local and national development
The right to access information is a powerful tool for development. Disadvantaged and socially marginalised groups can take advantage of public and government information to become involved in the development of initiatives that can help look after them.
At the same time, an inability to access information can be very harmful. Without it, people’s development is blocked by their inability to learn about the policies that affect them, or the decisions that are taken on their behalf, seriously constraining their freedom. This can be a matter of health – the wellbeing of a society depends on access to information and statistics on clean water, sanitation, and access to vaccinations – or even life or death. The Indian Nobel-winning economist, Amartya Sen, has suggested that a lack of access to information can lead to confusion an inefficiencies in government that can worsen serious cases of deprivation, and even lead to famines..
Access to information helps us have control over our personal lives
Access to information laws also serve a number of important social goals. The right to access one’s personal information, for example, is part of respect for basic human dignity, but it can also be useful to effective personal decision-making. Access to medical records, for example, can help individuals make decisions about treatment; access to financial records can support in financial planning, while access to educational records can help a person demonstrate their qualifications. Allowing people access to their own data can have a significant, mundane, everyday effect.
Access to information is good for business, and good for our economy
Access to information doesn’t just help people – it can help make businesses more effective, too. Public bodies hold a vast amount of economic data and information of all kinds, which can often be be very useful for enterprises. In many countries with ATI laws, companies and commercial requesters issue more requests than any other group. As such, states can also benefit from ATI laws because of the increases in the productivity and efficiency of businesses that they bring – a benefit that often helps to allay some governments’ concerns about the cost of implementing such legislation.
The global history of Access to Information, then, is one that’s both very old, and incredibly new, and continues to develop in the present day. ATI frameworks all over the world continue to change, develop, expand, and improve, creating an enormous changes in how governments are accountable, and how they relate to their citizens. All those involved in facilitating Access to Information around the world are in the process of writing history.
The right to access official information is one of the cornerstones of representative democracy. In a representative system of government, the representatives should respond to the people who entrusted them with their representation and the authority to make decisions on public matters. It is to the individual who delegated the administration of public affairs to his or her representatives that belongs the right to information – Information that the State uses and produces with taxpayer money.
Democracy is also about accountability and good governance. The public has a right to scrutinise the actions of its leaders, and to engage in full and open debate about those actions. It must be able to assess the performance of the government and this depends on access to information about the state of the economy, social systems and other matters of public concern. This doesn’t just help ordinary people, but also improves the functioning of the state as well – one of the most effective ways of addressing poor governance, particularly in the longer term, is through informed debate, and an organisational culture of openness and truth.
Access to information laws reflect the fundamental idea that government is supposed to serve the people. It is increasingly being recognised that governments hold information not for themselves, but rather on behalf of the public. As a result, public bodies should provide access to that information. This recognition is reflected in the explosive growth in the number of ATI laws that have been adopted around the world, as well as the numerous international declarations putting their weight behind the concept.
‘… access to information must be viewed as a right of every citizen … it is a right enshrined in the Constitution and should under no circumstances be abridged or violated …
Citizens must have access to facts and information from legitimate transmission and publication sources within Jordan and abroad. Censorship of classified material should not prevent the citizens from exercising this right …
The circulation of news and data must be regarded as an indivisible part of the freedom of the press and information. The state must guarantee free access to information to the extent that it does not jeopardise national security or the national interest. It must enact legislation to protect journalists and other information personnel in the fulfilment of their duties and to provide them with material and psychological security.’
While the plan for Jordan’s Freedom of Information law contained a number of reservations, it nonetheless represent an extensive step forward for ATI in the country. A draft ATI law was laid out in 2006, and the full Access to Information law went through in 2007. Today, Jordan is one of only two states in the Arab world to have a functioning access to information law, and the first one to do so (the other one being Yemen; laws on these issues are currently being debated in several other MENA countries, including Tunisia, Morocco, and Lebanon).
The 2007 Access to Information Law stipulates that citizens have the right to access written, recorded, and photographed government information and basic government records, in line with the rights called for the in the National Charter. Nonetheless, there have been a number of problems that limit the effectiveness of the right of access to information.
To begin with, many state laws conflict with the ATI standard set out in 2007, limiting people’s rights to get information in practice. These include the 1998 Jordan Press Association Law, the 1960 penal code, the 1992 Defense Law, the 1959 Contempt of Court Law, the 1971 Protection of State Secrets and Classified Documents Law, the 2006 Anti-Corruption Law and 2006 Financial Disclosure Law. All of these can be used to block people’s access to information, and it’s not immediately obvious how these interact with the ATI law on a legal basis. There have been some positive steps on this, including the Amended Press and Publications Law No. 8 of 1998, which expands traditional notions of the freedom of the press to include “the right to access information, news and statistics of interest to the citizens from various sources”, and requires public authorities to provide journalists with information regarding their programs, projects, and plans.
Infrastructural issues also represent a significant obstacle to the implementation of the ATI law. The Information Council and National Library, who are responsible for implementing the ATI framework, were reportedly not allocated extra budgetary resources to carry out this role, and lack the power to compel public agencies to release data; in addition, different departments often seem to use different approaches to the classification, thus leading to a lack of consistency between departments, and difficulty with communications between different departments (which, according to anecdotal evidence, are not particularly streamlined).
In one case, during a journalism training exercise in 2012, a set of trainees visiting the Ministry of Health found that there were no ATI request forms in the building, and few of the officials there were even aware of the law’s existence. In September 2012, similarly, the Jordan Media Monitor attempted to find information about 2006 draft law mentioned above. The results of this search highlighted the fact that each individual government department was often unaware of what information was being held where, and whether or not it had been transferred to other departments. Not only does this suggest that information sharing and organisational systems between departments were poor, but it also suggested that even the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology was unable to efficiently source information about its own affairs without considerable troubles and obstacles.
This, combined with general issues of organisational culture and information sharing, means that it is often difficult to effectively take advantage of the Access to Information laws. There is, nonetheless, an extensive grounding in Jordanian law for the effective use of ATI law for positive ends; numerous journalists, activists, and citizens have used it in order to gain information about their society, and used it for positive ends.