September 28 is International Right to Know Day. Since 2003, advocates have marked the occasion by calling for greater access to government-held information.
Among those observing Right to Know Day is the London-based Article 19.
“Right to Know Day is an international celebration in about 40 to 50 countries celebrating people’s right to information, their ability to hold their governments accountable and the make them transparent,” said Dave Banisar is the group’s senior legal advisor.
The group gets its name from Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which guarantees free speech.
“We’re mostly talking about information held by government bodies about their activities: what they spend their money on, how they made their decisions, what they plan to do next,” he said.
Banisar said the lack of access to such information is widespread.
“The main problem is still that over a hundred countries around the world do not have a right to information incorporated in their national laws. So, people don’t have the ability to even demand from their governments basic information about how money is being spent in their neighborhoods for their schools or for their hospitals,” he said.
On September 19th, in Cape Town, South Africa, the Pan African Conference on Access to Information adopted the African Platform on Access to Information Declaration.
“The African platform is an effort by African groups focusing on freedom of expression and information to promote the right to information in Africa. So it focuses on very Africa specific issues, such as health and aid transparency and gender equality, areas where there are unique problems that need to be addressed,” said Banisar.
Heart of democracy
Henry Maina, Article 19’s East Africa Director, said access to information is at the heart of any democracy in Africa.
“I think it’s been easy previously for people to think about democracy [meaning] holding successive elections. But I think access to information would begin to show that democracy is more than just holding elections. It means people being able to participate directly into making decisions about issues that affect them – and holding those that they’ve elected, in between elections, accountable,” he said.
Ten African countries have freedom of information laws. However, Maina said access to government-held information is still not as open as it should be.
“It’s still seen as an elite kind of right that the locals do not feel sufficiently empowered to challenge those who hold power. Because sometimes it’s seen in Africa that asking questions is like challenging those who hold power. It’s not seen as a right that you’re only seeking to get information,” he said.
Maina said adoption of the African platform is only the beginning. The real work, he said, must begin now to secure access across the continent. That could take some time. For example, it took Nigeria 15 years to approve its freedom of information law.
Right to Know Day advocates said access to information is good for governments themselves, improving efficiency and reducing corruption.