The need and right to know: freedom of information laws

When U.S. Congressman John Moss called for more openness amid the Red Scare of the 1950s, it was the first step that culminated in the creation of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

The FOIA has been integral to keeping the U.S. government transparent since President Lyndon Johnson signed it into law in 1967. Under the FOIA, citizens have the right to access information from the federal government, and agencies have to release any requested information unless that information is protected by law.

The U.K., New Zealand, and India are some of the other countries with legislation ensuring a citizen’s right to information held by their governments. The degree of transparency afforded to each citizen, however, differs from country to country.

The U.K.’s Freedom of Information (FOI) Act 2000 functions in a similar fashion to its American cousin, in providing citizens with access to information held by public authorities.

It is not perfect. When Christina Urso approached the U.S. Capitol Police for files pertaining to the death of Ashli Babbitt and U. S. Capitol Police Officer David Bailey, her request was rejected on the grounds that the U.S. Capitol Police was not subject to the FOIA as they technically were not an agency

In India, bureaucratic red tape and inefficiency hinder the efficacy of the Right to Information (RTI) Act. In 2014, an Economic Times article said that “some of the basic provisions of the law are yet to be implemented.” 

But despite these flaws, any legislation cementing the rights of curious citizens to ask questions of their government is better than nothing.

“Freedom of information contributes to enhanced empowerment and equality of all social groups, including women and indigenous peoples,” states UNESCO on its website

Yet not all countries have an FOI law. Singapore lacks it.

This unequal access makes reporting hard for independent outlets not associated with Singapore Press Holdings or Mediacorp (both of which have close ties with the Singapore Government). When Yahoo News Singapore requested for an advance copy of the annual National Day Rally speech in 2016, senior Government officials effectively stymied their attempts with obscurity. 

Legislation similar to the FOIA would have made it obligatory for the officials to hand over the speech. But Yahoo News Singapore’s Assistant News Editor, Nicholas Yong is doubtful.

“In my opinion, an FOIA is vital for ensuring greater accountability from government agencies. However, this is very different from what would motivate the government to implement such a law. I cannot think of any compelling reason, be it public sentiment or political expediency, for the Government to implement an FOIA. It would likely take a change of government and/or political ideology to do so,” said Yong.

In a Select Committee hearing on online deliberate falsehoods, Minister of Culture, Community and Youth Edwin Tong questioned the law’s potential to be abused by businesses as well as national security concerns.

This concern is not limited to Singapore. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair considered the introduction of the FOI law in the U.K. as one of his biggest mistakes during his term in office, as reported in a 2011 article by the Guardian. The act, he believed, hindered the government’s ability to do its job effectively.

The number of Asian countries with some form of FOI legislation has been increasing since Australia and New Zealand enacted theirs in 1982. These include Taiwan and the Philippines.

This is hopeful that the region is becoming increasingly committed to transparency, at least on the surface.

However, FOI legislation is not a panacea for democracy and transparency.

For example, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who said, “Just because you’re a journalist, you are not exempted from assassination if you’re a son of a bitch,” at a press conference is the same man who signed an order implementing freedom of information at the executive branch of the government of the country.

Nevertheless, keeping the discourse alive is necessary for a more robust democracy. While FOI legislation is not a magical tool that guarantees full transparency, it helps to push us in that direction.