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Democracies Should Lead the way on Right to Know Day

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Governments are supposed to be representatives of the people, delegates of their citizens, trustees of the public good. Yet too often we see that officials, once elected or anointed, hold information close the vest and are loathe to share with the public. Information is power, and in repressive regimes, the flow of information inherently challenges the status quo. Yet in the era of digital networks and citizen media there has been a concurrent backlash by governments across the world as they seek to restrict access to information and the public's right to know.

On International Right to Know Day, this battle between secrecy and openness is being fought throughout the world, from the staunchest democracies to the most repressive regimes. In 2002, September 28 was established by access to information advocates around the world as the Right to Know Day, a day meant to raise awareness about the fundamental right to information. This right enables full citizen empowerment and participation in government and ensures against abuses of power by encouraging transparency and accountability. Freedom of information is the cornerstone not only of democracy but of all other freedoms, as the United Nations General Assembly recognized in 1946.

Momentous technological changes in information and communication technology have coincided with a time of great political upheaval as local pressures for political reform converge with international demands economic and political change. The Arab Spring provides new opportunities for Egypt, Libya and Tunisia to enshrine the Right to Know in their constitutions and legal reforms, and to set an example for a region that consistently ranks the worst on Freedom House's annual Freedom of the Press survey.

Africa is headed in the right direction on this issue with the adoption earlier this month of the African Platform on Access to Information. Frank La Rue, UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression, Faith Pansy Tlakula, Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa, and Norris Tweah, Liberian Deputy Minister of Information, Culture and Tourism were among those who signed the Platform. The challenge to implementation at the national level remains, however.

Jurgen Habermas, whose theory of the public sphere has become a central metaphor for democratic life, placed the responsibility for the sovereignty of the people "into the flow of communication... in the power of public discourses that uncover topics of relevance to all of society, interpret values, contribute to the resolution of problems, generate good reasons, and debunk bad ones." Without information communication and discourse suffer, with real implications for people's rights, health and livelihoods.

In China, for example, the International Federation of Journalists uncovered scores of restrictive orders issued by authorities in 2010 that blocked information on public health, disasters, corruption and civil unrest. In Russia, regional governments provided only 38% of the information on activities that must be published according to the Russian Freedom of Information law. And in the United States, the Obama administration has classified more documents than any other administration, 77 million in 2010 alone, prompting top officials to formally complain about needless classification of documents that contain no secrets and officials to retaliate by using the Espionage Act in at least five cases of news media disclosure.

The right to know, to have access to the information needed to live and choose, is too often sacrificed in the name of national security or to protect entrenched political interests. On this Right to Know Day, let democracies lead the way in promoting and protecting this right and be an example to transitioning countries where leaders are too often tempted to ignore this fundamental human right.