Documents wait to be scanned, sorted, and archived in Guatemala. In the first worldwide test of freedom of information, Guatemala was one of the most responsive countries. (AP)
Documents wait to be scanned, sorted, and archived in Guatemala. In the first worldwide test of freedom of information, Guatemala was one of the most responsive countries. (AP)

Most countries fail AP’s test of right-to-know laws

The right to information is at the heart of CPJ’s advocacy for press freedom, so we naturally support legislation granting that right, whether it is to journalists or ordinary citizens (or those in the expanding area between). But laws purporting to uphold the people’s right to information are only as good as their implementation. Today, The Associated Press published an in-depth look at freedom-of-information laws around the world and the extent to which they are followed. During one week in January, the AP submitted requests to 105 countries with right-to-know laws and the European Union, the agency reported. Among its findings:

– Only 14 countries gave complete answers within their own deadlines. Another 38 countries eventually came up with data or answers to most of the AP’s questions.

– Younger democracies were on average more responsive than older ones. “Guatemala confirmed the AP request in 72 hours, and sent all documents in 10 days. Turkey sent spreadsheets and data within seven days. Mexico posted responses on the Web. By comparison, Canada asked for a 200-day extension. The FBI in the United States responded six months late with a single sheet with four dates, two words and a large section blanked,” the AP reported.

– More than half of the countries did not disclose any information, and three out of 10 did not even acknowledge the AP’s request.

– Some countries adopted freedom-of-information laws as a condition for financing or membership in international groups, and the AP indicated this was little more than lip service. Noting that China changed its rules as a condition for joining the World Trade Organization in 2001 and Pakistan for $1.4 billion in aid from the International Monetary Fund in 2002, the AP said neither country responded to its request.

Many of these findings weren’t surprising to CPJ, such as that China (one of the world’s worst jailers of journalists) and Pakistan (where reporting the truth can risk a journalist’s life) weren’t forthcoming. Nor were we surprised that African governments were among the worst offenders or that the U.S. response came with the speed of a snail and was incomplete.

More interesting, perhaps, was the AP’s description of Mexico: “Mexico’s freedom of information law is often cited as a model. Requests can be anonymous. All responses are made public. The system acknowledges the request immediately, and full answers typically arrive within a month.” At CPJ, we don’t frequently write about Mexico with approval; 27 journalists have been killed there since 1992, most with impunity, and attacks on the press are a regular occurrence. Then again, the vast majority of journalists killed in Mexico were reporting not directly on government malfeasance but on drug trafficking and related crime; the cartels, alas, don’t support the people’s right to information.

So information, while usually liberating, can also be deadly. In its report, the AP highlighted the plight of an Indian man who said his successful right-to-know request into suspected corruption led to an attack by the local mayor, who allegedly killed the man’s wife and permanently injured his father. “India was one of just 14 countries that replied to the AP’s request in full and on time,” the AP reported, but added that dozens of people in India had been attacked for using the law and at least 12 killed. It seems as if one not need be a journalist of any stripe to be endangered by knowledge.