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Access to Information Laws: Overview and Statutory Goals

last modified Jan 20, 2012 01:30 PM

Overview

As of September 2013, at least 95 countries had nationwide laws establishing the right of, and procedures for, the public to request and receive government-held information ( including four with actionable ATI regulations, i.e. Argentina, China, Niger and Tunisia). For a list of these countries, click here. For a similar list that also contains numerous self-governing territories and other sub-national entities with right to information (RTI) laws, compiled by Dutch FOI expert Roger Vleugels, click here.

The first RTI law was enacted by Sweden in 1766, largely motivated by the parliament's interest in access to information held by the King. Finland was the next to adopt, in 1951, followed by the United States, which enacted its first law in 1966, and Norway, which passed its laws in 1970.  The interest in RTI took a leap forward when the United States, reeling from the 1974 Watergate scandal, passed a tough FOI law in 1976, followed by passage by several western democracies of their own laws (France and Netherlands 1978, Australia and New Zealand 1982, Canada 1983, Columbia and Denmark 1985, Greece 1986, Austria 1987, Italy 1990). By 1990, the number of countries with RTI/FOI laws had climbed to 14.

The fall of the Berlin Wall and the rapid growth of civil society groups demanding access to information - about the environment, public health impacts of accidents and government policies, draft legislation, maladministration, and corruption - gave impetus to the next wave of enactments, which peaked in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Between 1992 and 2006, 25 countries in Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union passed RTI laws, of which Hungary and Ukraine were among the first. During that same period through to the present, at least 51 countries in other regions of the world enacted laws.

By September 2013, some 95 countries had national-level right to information laws or regulations in force - including the population giants of China, India, and Russia, most countries in Europe and Central Asia, more than half of the countries in Latin America, more than a dozen in Asia and the Pacific, eleven countries in Africa, and three in the Middle East. As of May 2012, when Brazil's law entered into force, more than 5.5 billion people live in countries that include in their domestic law an enforceable right, at least in theory, to obtain information from their governments.

The momentum for adoption of RTI laws is building in Africa, with passage of a law in Nigeria in 2011 after a decade-long civil society campaign and work led by the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights to develop a Model Law on Access to Information for Africa. Momentum is also developing in Asia, boosted by China's adoption of nationwide regulations (applicable to all levels of government) in 2007 and Indonesia's adoption of a nationwide law in 2008. The region least touched by the right to information movement is the Middle East. Only Jordan, Yemen and Israel have laws; moreover Jordan's law is weak and adoption was driven by the government rather than civil society.

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Europe

Of the 56 participa­ting states in the OSCE, 46 now have specific access to information laws (the 10 that do not are: Andorra, Belarus (Belarus passed a Law on Information, Informatization and Protection of Information in 2008 but due to the low quality of the law we do not consider it as a full-fledged FOI law), Cyprus, the Holy See, Kazakhstan, Luxembourg, Mona­co, San Marino, Spain, and Turkmenis­tan).

The Council of Europe Convention on Access to Official Documents, adopted by the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe on November 27, 2008 provides in preambular paragraph 6 that exercise of the right to access official documents:

(i) provides a source of information for the public;

(ii) helps the public to form an opinion on the state of society and on public authorities; [and]

(iii) fosters the integrity, efficiency, effectiveness and accountability of public authorities, so helping affirm their legitimacy [...].

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Africa

Only nine countries in Africa (Angola, Ethiopia, Guinea Conakry, Liberia, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa, Uganda, Zimbabwe) have access to information laws, and two have actionable ATI regulations (Niger and Tunisia). Zimbabwe's Access to Information and Privacy Act has been used more to suppress information in the name of privacy than to make information available and accordingly is sometimes not included in counts of RTI laws.

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Americas

Fifteen countries in the Americas and six in the Caribbean had access to information laws as of September 2013. They are, in the Americas Belize, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Peru, Uruguay, USA; and in the Caribbean Antigua & Barbuda, Dominican Republic, Guyana, Jamaica, St. Vincent & Grenadines, and Trinidad & Tobago.

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Asia & Pacific

Sixteen countries in Asia and the Pacific have access to information laws: Australia, Bangladesh, Cook Islands, India, Indonesia, Japan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Nepal, New Zealand, Pakistan, South Korea, Taiwan, Tajikistan, Thailand, and Uzbekistan. In addition, China has actionable ATI regulations.

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Middle East

Only three countries in the Middle East - Israel, Jordan and Yemen - had an access to information law as of January 2013.

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Archive

You will find detailed country information that is not regularly updated in our Archive.