What’s in a name: Right or Access? Know or Information?

Seems UNESCO is taking the “diplomatic” way out, which probably means no one will be happy with the results.

Seems that advocates of freedom of information/right to know laws want the United Nations to put its seal of approval for an internationally recognized Right to Know Day on September 28.

The problem comes in what to call it.

Since 2002 September 28 has been noted as Right to Know Day. Some call it Right to Access and in the USA it is Freedom of Information.

Whatever the title, the bottom line is that the people have a right to government information and the government process should be transparent. In addition, massive rules and bureaucracies designed should not hinder citizen access.

Of course, the word “citizen” implies a civic society which in turn implies some form of democratic government. But I digress.

Initially it seems UNESCO preferred “Access to Information Day.” Civil society organizations, however, insisted that the emphasis should be on the RIGHT  to access the information.

Let’s face it, any government can say the people have “access” to the information. All they have to do is fill out 20-30 forms, show up in an obscure office down a back alley and wait for the right person to show up to authorize access. (Yes, I know that this does sound how the US FOIA works, but trust me it’s not.)

And the debate also includes the right to “information” or to “knowing.” A previous report on this discussion from FreedomInfo.org goes into the finer points:

“Know” side advocates, besides seeing value in preserving the existing “brand” of the RTK Day, argued that “know” is a more meaningful and encompassing term. The ultimate value of dispensing information is to enhance a right to know, it was said. The obligation of governments is not just to dispense raw information, said one contributor, but also to provide it in useable formats with context.

“Information” proponents, however, called “know” ambiguous. Getting the information is key, one stated, and what happens afterward is up to the individual. They also noted that the right to information is widely referenced in international official context.

Most commenters believe that UN endorsement would be positive, especially if resources followed, though some lamented having RTK Day distanced from its civil society roots.

One person objected that “neither the right to information nor the right to know is enough!” The acquisition of information is only one part of social change and must be accompanied by adequate participatory systems and accountability, a troika known in the environmental movement as “environmental democracy.” She urged the right to information movement to go beyond its traditional scope, but did not suggest a new day name.

The Carter Center has some excellent reports on efforts to make governments more accountable through the use of RTK/FOI laws.

Stay tuned to see if the UN/UNESCO finally get around to establishing Sept. 28 as a day to commemorate the right of people to know what their governments are doing and to get data easily from those governments.

I, for one, would LOVE to see a successful RTK/FOI request in Beijing on the Tiananmen Square massacre.

Hey! I can dream!



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