By David Cuillier | September 28th, 2009
Today is the seventh annual International Right to Know Day, and it’s a good year to celebrate. According to FOIAnet, a network of about 200 FOI organizations in 75 countries, about 90 countries have FOI laws and six countries are adopting FOI laws (Bangladesh, the Caymen Islands, Chile, the Cook Islands, Guatemala and Uruguay).
Another success this past year has been the renewed transparency brought to the U.S. government through the Obama administration. Today a variety of events are being held around the world to promote FOI (see the FOIAnet page for more).
Sometimes we forget that we aren’t the only country with FOI laws, and we weren’t even the first to pass a federal FOIA. In 1766 Sweden/Finland (combined back then) adopted the world’s first FOIA law and press freedom law – before we were even a country and 200 years before the U.S. FOIA was passed. Even Colombia had a federal FOIA by 1888.
In the spirit of International Right to Know Day, I think it’s appropriate to honor who some consider the “Father of FOI,” Anders Chydenius, the person who led the charge for the 1766 “Freedom-of-Press and the Right-of-Access to Public Records Act” in Sweden-Finland. I would say that he was one of the first to champion press freedom legislation as well. Here’s what Chydenius said in a 1775 memo on “Freedom of the Press”:
“No proof should be necessary that a modicum of freedom for writing and printing is one of the strongest pillars of support for free government, for in the absence of such, the Estates would not dispose of sufficient knowledge to make good laws, nor practitioners of law have control in their vocation, nor subjects knowledge of the requirements laid down in law, the limits of authority and their own duties. Learning and good manners would be suppressed, coarseness in thought, speech and customs would flourish, and a sinister gloom would within a few years darken our entire sky of freedom.”
To learn more about Chydenius, check out the Web site dedicated to him, as well as a nice piece on the history of international FOI laws by a journalism professor in Australia, Stephen Lamble. To learn more about FOI laws worldwide, check out freedominfo.org.
We can learn a lot from other countries’ FOI laws – some have better laws, or subparts, than U.S. FOIA. For example, South Korea’s FOIA requires agencies to respond in 10 days (not 20 like in the U.S.), and applies to all three branches of government, not just the executive branch as in the U.S.
Think of it this way: The U.S. produced a good FOIA law in 1966 – the Ford Mustang of FOIA laws. A fine machine, with some muscle for the times and strong appeal, yet one that needs a little tinkering and maintenance as it continues to age. Meanwhile, other countries, like South Korea, have had the opportunity to build on that prior knowledge to create a new car in just the past few years, let’s say a Hyundai Elantra (which beat out the Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic in Consumer Reports’ top-ranked compact cars in 2008), with better features than the ’66 Mustang. It’s got a better sound system, better AC, better fuel mileage, etc. We’re still probably better off upgrading our Mustang rather than scrapping it and starting over (it’s not quite in the clunker category yet, thanks to several upgrades, the last one being the Open Government Act of 2007), but we still have some more work to do on it, and we can look to other models for ideas.
So happy International Right to Know Day. Celebrate by submitting a FOIA request.