When Pres. Johnson signed the Freedom of Information law into effect 44 years ago, he told his then press secretary Bill Moyers that he had just signed one of the most dangerous laws.
And many government leaders still seem to think that letting people have access to otherwise public documents is dangerous.
Fortunately, there is a global movement to encourage more freedom of information — also known as right to access — laws. And yes, it does matter to American citizens that more countries have strong and enforceable access laws. (More on that later.)
The Carter Center is a prime mover in this field.
Access to information is the cornerstone to good governance, meaningful participation, and increasing transparency, and is recognized as a fundamental human right.
The center has held a number of regional seminars on access to information around the world, most recently in Africa in February 2010.
Now the Carter Center has set up a way to test how governments are doing in implementing freedom of/access to information laws.
Unlike the various press freedom or corruption perception indexes, the Implementation Assessment Tool from the Carter Center is designed to assess each country on its own merits.
The IAT is designed to assess the specific activities/inputs that the public administration has engaged – or in some cases failed to achieve – in furtherance of a well-implemented law. It is deliberately designed not to focus on the sufficiency of the legal framework, the user side of the equation, or the overall effectiveness of the access to information regime. The IAT is constructed to serve as an input for each public agency in which it is applied, and not as a comparative index across countries.
Even without the cross-country analysis, the tool sounds like an excellent way for journalism and civil liberty groups to praise or put pressure on governments on freedom of information laws and implementation.
Many thanks to FreedomInfo.org for pointing out this new venture to make the world more transparent.
Why is this important?
For Americans more concerned with getting past reticent bureaucrats it hardly seems that important to pay attention to what other governments do in the area of freedom of information. Yet, that type of isolationist thinking is damaging to not only those struggling to get their first FOI laws but also to those of us who have enjoyed this type of legislation for almost half a century.
Whether local editors and publishers want to admit it or not, local economies are tied to international issues. And this is more than just driving to the local Wal-Mart in a Japanese car to buy Chinese-made products and then stopping by a Mexican restaurant for lunch.
Much has been made of the lead content in some Chinese-made products. And, of course we all know that the Chinese government is hardly forthcoming with information. No one expects to get anything out of them.
But what about cigars from Honduras or coffee from Jamaica? Or textiles from the Dominican Republic?
All are sold in the United States. Officially these products pass inspection but what do we really know about the manufacturing process? What are the methods in the countries of origin to ensure the safety of the products and the workers?
Getting that information — even in the USA — requires a lot of digging and the use of the freedom of information laws.
So a local reporter wanting to know more about what goes into the making of the cigars a new father hands out at the birth of his daughter might have to look at more than just the FDA certificate of safety that accompanied the imported item. She might have to look at the laws and regulations in the country of origin. She might have to look at records of potential violations of health and safety.
And that type of investigation will require use of the freedom of information laws in more than one country.
So, yes, it does matter to U.S. journalists and civic groups that other countries have strong and enforceable freedom of information laws.