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Report finds worldwide explosion of FOI laws

But 'culture of secrecy' still prevails

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Almost 70 countries have now adopted freedom of information (FOI) laws, according to civil liberties group Privacy International. Over half of those have been adopted in the last 10 years, according to a survey just published.

"The previous two years have been an exciting time for those promoting and using the right of access to information," said the report's author, David Banisar, in its foreword. "Countries on every continent have adopted laws. Others have amended and improved their laws. International rights and duties through the UN and other international bodies have emerged. Innovation has flourished."

The report found that FOI laws are used across the world to ensure that governments are open and accountable. It also found, though, specific instances where the laws have been used for very specific ends beneficial to citizens.

In India, the report found, FOI laws are used to gather data on food vendors to find out which vendors are not providing government-subsidised food to the poor. The food distribution system has changed as a result.

In Thailand, one mother used FOI laws to discover the entrance exam results of a selective school to which her daughter had been refused admittance. The results proved that influential people's children were admitted even with poor entrance exam results. A council of state issued a new order on school admissions.

The report also found some significant problems with FOI laws across the world.

"There is much work to be done to reach truly transparent government," said the report. "The culture of secrecy remains strong in many countries. Many of the laws are not adequate and promote access in name only. In some countries, the laws lie dormant due to a failure to implement them properly or a lack of demand. In others, the exemptions and fees are abused by governments. New laws promoting secrecy in the global war on terror have undercut access."

It is not just abroad that the report has found deficiencies in FOI laws and implementation. Author Banisar also criticises FOI law in the UK.

"Implementation of the Act was extremely slow," he wrote. "The publication schemes were phased over several years starting in 2002 but the right to demand information from bodies did not go into force until January 2005, nearly five years after the adoption of the Act and the slowest of any country in the world.

"The biggest problems with the Act thus far has been delays on responses and decisions both by the authorities and the Information Commission," said the report. "Many users also report problems with the excessive use of exemptions by public bodies. There was also controversy over a significant increase in the number of files that were destroyed and a new policy on email retention that called for all email to be deleted after 90 days after printing out important messages just prior to the commencement of the Act."

See: The report (167 page/2.9MB PDF)

Copyright © 2006, OUT-LAW.com

OUT-LAW.COM is part of international law firm Pinsent Masons.

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