Posts Tagged ‘Freedom of Information’


World Bank posts global FOI information

First posted at Journalism, Journalists and the World

Many thanks to the World Bank for building and posting a database of the freedom of information laws for many (not all) countries.

The database is part of the World Banks’ Public Accountability Mechanisms to keep government operations honest and transparent.

Freedominfo.org points out:

The Bank does not rate or rank the countries, but the database is expected to be a trove of information for comparative research. The Bank now is moving into research on FOI implementation issues.

The database collects information about FOI laws in seven broad categories with 30 subcategories.

Furthermore, the Bank does not score countries on their openness laws. But at least there is a list to work from.

After going to the Public Accountability page, click on the country you are interested in. Then scroll down to the FOI link.

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FOI makes progress in Malaysia

The first FOI law in Malaysia passed in Selangor state. The Center for Independent Journalism Malaysia said the national government should follow suit.

Selangor Passes FOI Bill; First in Malaysia

The legislation included a number of improvement the Center said. Among the positive changes are:

  1. Acknowledgment of the right to information, rather than an opportunity given by the state
  2. An obligation to reveal information
  3. Possibility of review by the courts
  4. A more independent State Information Board (to replace the Appeals Board)
  5. A narrower list of exemptions, with a public interest override
  6. Protection from prosecution, sanctions, suit etc for Information Officers or government officers who disclose information in good faith
  7. 20-year time limit for keeping information confidential.


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The Marshall Plan: What it meant 63 years ago and what it means today

First posted at Journalism, Journalists and the World.

Here it is the 63rd anniversary of the signing into law the Foreign Assistance Act of 1948. Better known as the Marshall Plan.

Seems whenever there is talk of helping a country rebuild — think Haiti — inevitably someone mentions the Marshall Plan. What people tend to forget is that the Marshall Plan was designed to rebuild societies that already had stable political and industrial infrastructures.

What Haiti and many other countries need is development help.

The Marshall Plan was not so much a “development” plan but a rebuilding plan.

The Marshall Plan, by providing goods to a war-ravaged Europe also provided support to democratic forces — from democratic socialists to conservatives. Without the Marshall Plan the Soviet Union would have grabbed more influence in Western Europe by playing on the deprivation of post-war Europe.

The marching orders from Moscow were clear to their satellite parties in Western Europe: Stop the Marshall Plan. For example, while the French Communist unions refused to unload Marshall Plan goods at the ports, the French Socialist unions were anxious to do so.

Oh, by the way, the aid was offered to Eastern Europe as well. The Soviets made sure their puppet governments rejected the help.

Again, the Marshall Plan was designed to assist societies that already had a history and culture of industrial life and democratic rule. All they needed was a little help to get back on their feet.

With the help of the Marshall Plan Europe got back on its feet. In the process the U.S. gained new trading partners instead of clients. And we got political and military allies instead of adversaries.

All in all we got a good return for our minimal investment.

The problems countries such as Haiti and many in Africa face are a lack of democratic institutions and stable and safe infrastructure. What these countries need is not so much a Marshall Plan, but rather development support on a broad front.

The development of democratic institutions is vital to economic development. People have to see they have a stake in the growth and development of their country.

When only the political elite get the benefits of industrialization and when the workers are denied their basic rights, the embers of revolts and violence start to glow. Add unchecked corrupt government practices — because of no free press or independent watchdog — can only help the embers burst into an inferno.

Fortunately, the U.S. Agency for International Development figured out some time ago that along with building roads and power grids, development programs had to include the building a pluralistic culture.

In the past 15 or so years, AID has run programs that help local journalists understand what it means to have independent media. Sessions are run on how to either get the government to enact freedom of information laws or how to improve and use existing laws.

Adding to the development issue is the work of the National Endowment for Democracy. This private, government-funded group provides funds to the international arms of the Chamber of Commerce, AFL-CIO and the Democratic and Republican Parties. The programs these groups run help build business and labor groups and  the political parties run programs to improve the stability of political forces independent of government control.

Back to the main point:

Under the Marshall Plan, no one had to worry about building democratic institutions or building and industrial culture. The people were anxious and ready to do that. The Marshal Plan gave the people the material support they needed.

What is needed in the developing world are programs to get to that first step of development: the building of a pluralistic society with independent organizations to serve as a check and balance against government excesses.

So, please, let’s get our terms right in the future. Please let’s not see any more stories that say “Haiti needs a Marshall Plan.” It’s just bad history.

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Mexican FOI law improves with new provisions

Freedom of information laws are a growing phenomenon in the world and more needs to be done to help the forces of FOI win their battles.

In Mexico, the forces of transparency won a major victory in a key congressional committee as damaging proposals were cast aside and proposals to strengthen the law passed.

And Twitter played a role.

Improvements to Mexican Transparency Law Passed

1 APRIL 2011

A handful of potentially harmful proposals to change the Mexican freedom of information law were defeated March 30 as a key congressional committee approved a package of more positive reforms.

Although approval by several other committees and the full lower body of Congress still lies ahead, and activists are concerned about the possible opposition from some in the current government, the deletion of certain parts of the Senate-passed bill was considered a major success by Mexican supporters of freedom of information. Their effort was bolstered by a targeted barrage of Twitter messages.

Rest of story at Freedominfo.org

The Carter Center and the Knight Foundation have been running a series of seminars and conferences around the world to promote the concept that citizens have a right to know what information their governments have.

 

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FOI: It’s not just a local thing

First posted at Journalism, Journalists and the World

Welcome El Salvador to the ranks of governments that  have accepted the idea that its citizens have a right to know (most) of what the government knows.

El Salvador Joins the List of FOI Countries

The latest action by El Salvador also proves that no matter how parochial many may think the freedom of information movement is, it is really global in its reach. In fact, there is even an International Right to Know Day. (It’s Sept. 28, in case you did not know.)

The Carter Center is especially active in the global right to know/information movement.

Last year it held a major conference in Africa. (Report) The year before it sponsored a conference in Latin America. (Report) And it kicked off the regional sessions with a global conference in 2008.

The important point here is that while journalists and journalism groups are some of the most vocal in support and defense of freedom of/right to information laws, they are not the biggest users of those laws. The vast majority of FOI requests come from individuals, civic groups or private organizations.

A good example of how one person used the Virginia FOI laws is recorded in the Fairfax City Patch:

And it is clear that FOI laws are never as strong as we would like. But once the laws are on the books, it is up to the citizenry to use what is available and push for better laws. (This was the basic argument former SPJ president gave to journalists and civic groups in the Dominican Republic in 2005 on the first anniversary of that country’s FOI law.)

If nothing else, promotion and strengthening of FOI laws is a link that journalists and civil society activists share around the globe. Unfortunately, too few in the United States see that connection.

Corporations have globalized. It strikes me that the only way to keep track of what they are doing is to make sure that there are strong FOI laws around the globe as well. It further occurs to me that citizens who are used to having strong FOI laws should be reaching out to those in countries with no or weak FOI laws.

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New global tool to test FOI laws and why it matters

First posted at Journalism, Journalists and the World.

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

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.

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US Group Offers FOI Help In Georgia

First posted at Journalism, Journalists and the World.

Exciting news out of Georgia. (The country, not the U.S. state.)

The National Security Archives, an independent non-governmental research institute based at George Washington University, is running a course on how to use the Freedom of Information Act. The event is being sponsored by the Institute for Development of Freedom of Information in Georgia.

Okay, this is all about how Georgians can use the American Freedom of Information Act to get U.S. government documents. But this is an important step in helping train citizens how to access government documents.

The Georgian constitution guarantees citizens the right to access government documents. Subsequent laws define the process to access those laws. Now it is just a matter of training people on how to use those laws.

And as in any new process there are issues:

However there are still problems with implementation including a lack of promotion by officials, demands for reasons for requests (declining but still common), failure of some bodies to create registries, failure of administrative appeals and sanctions, and slowness by courts. — Freedominfo.org report on Georgia

Now, why is this important?

There is clearly a move within Georgia to get experts to help train Georgian citizens how to exercise their right to access to government documents. And this seminar — not the first of its kind in Georgia, by the way — is an important part of the process of moving from dictatorship under Communist rule to democracy.

And it is not always an easy process. But it is something that can be helped along by the U.S. government and by private American groups with expertise in this area.

FYI, the announcement of the event was posted at Media.ge, a website that gets support from the Open Society of Georgia and the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy. (Yep, U.S. taxpayers are helping fund efforts to build and strengthen democracy in Georgia. How radical!)

Those of us who subscribe to Media.ge were made aware earlier than others of the cyber attacks on Georgia during its brief war with Russia in 2008. It took a few more days for the Western media to start reporting on the new warfare.

And now, one of the biggest topics of discussion about future warfare is vulnerabilities to cyber attacks.

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It took a while, but China’s censors order CNN Wen interview removed

First posted at Journalism, Journalists and the World.

China’s censors must be overwhelmed by all the material on the Internet they have to go through. It took a couple of weeks for them to realize that what premier Wen Jibao told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria the things that China needed — more freedom of press and expression — was something the Chinese people should not be hearing.

A few friends who pay close attention to such things (and can read the documents) now report that a directive went out by the censorship team in Beijing to all websites to delete all content of the Wen CNN interview.

Now I like to think that the censors made this decision because of people like me (but clearly those with a bigger audience) who regularly pointed out that the campaign against Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo is in direct opposition to what Wen said just a week before the prize was awarded.

Nothing hurts Beijing like being caught so publicly in a massive case of hypocracy.

Liu is in jail for being a free speech advocate. That is why he got the Nobel Peace Prize.

A week earlier Wen to Zakaria that “freedom of speech is indispensable” to the growth and development of China.

Oops.

So for those who did not see the interview, including Wen’s statement that China needs more freedom of speech and expression to progress, here are the links to the CNN interviews. (Of course, these links pretty much ensure that this posting will be blocked in China.)

Get to know Premier Wen

Wen hopes US has quick economic rebound

Wen: Freedom of speech is indispensable.

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Pakistan: Blocks Facebook but allows militants free reign

First posted at Journalism, Journalists and the World.

Thanks to Danny O’Brien at CPJ and his excellent blog, Internet Blotter, for bringing this issue up.

I regularly read the Pakistan publication DAWN but for the business news. (It helps with my regular reporting on the area to know what the local media are saying.) But I missed this little tidbit from earlier this month: Hate on the Internet.

Seems the Pakistani government is worried about YouTube videos of the president telling some one to “shut up” but now worried about sites that “exhort Muslims to rise up against the United States and India.”

To be clear, I am not arguing for increased censorship. I am arguing against all censorship.

Yet it seems the Pakistani government has a two-faced approach to what is good for its people and what is bad. Now this is hardly surprising. But it is disappointing.

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Catching up: International Right of Information Day

First posted at Journalism, Journalists and The World.

September 28 was International Right to Information Day. In the States, we call “right to information” Freedom of Information and we celebrate it on March 16. (That is the anniversary of the birth of James Madison, the father of the U.S. Constitution and in particular, the Bill of Rights.)

Whenever it is celebrated, free access to government documents is a right recognized around the world but rarely put into practice.

A case in point is Brazil.

While the constitution says people have a right to information, legislation putting into place a mechanism to enforce that right has been languishing for years. And part of the problem seems to be that Brazilian media do little to push for the legislators to act.

Brazilian Press Skimps on FOI Coverage, Study Says

The study notes that without pressure from the media — there are few civic groups that see the importance of FOI laws — the legislation will continue to languish in the congress.

Compare the lack of action in Brazil to other countries in the region.

Mexico has not only enacted aggressive FOI laws, but continues to fine tune and improve its laws.

Freedominfo.org writes:

Mexico has set a new international standard for transparency legislation with the creation of a Federal Access to Information Institute (IFAI), charged with implementing and overseeing the law at the national level and Infomex, a website that allows users to file access to information requests electronically to federal and local government bodies.

The current economic crisis is affecting how well the law can be enforced, says Freedominfo.org.

Last year Unesco wrote a report on the status of right to information laws in Latin America. It is worth a read. (It’s only 164 pages.)

The Right to Information in Latin America

And the latest news is that the Argentina senate has finally moved ahead with a right to information law. And — unfortunately — it seems that the Article 19 people are the only ones getting this information out to the rest of the world.

Last year the Carter Foundation and the Knight Foundation for Journalism in the Americas produced a report on the status of freedom of information laws in the America.

Americas Regional Conference on the Right of Access to Information

At least this one is only 9 pages but well worth the read.

Bottom line is that for democracies to survive freedom of information laws are needed. And despite the conventional wisdom that these laws benefit only journalists, it is a fact that most of the people using these laws to access government information are NOT journalists.

Most of the people using the FOI laws are average citizens, consumer advocacy groups and businesses.

Still, it would be nice to see the SPJ step in more on the international side to support efforts for better FOI laws around the world. This is, after all, an area of strength for this organization. It is a pity more is not being done to advertise that fact.

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