Raman Vidhya
Category: Society & Culture
Source: Raman Vidhya
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.Upon what meat doth democracy feed? It feeds upon facts”- Herbert Brucker

Freedom of information (FOI) is a human right. In order to make governments accountable, citizens have the right to know - the right of access to official documents. Freedom of Information has been developing at a strong pace only recently, but it is hardly a new concept. The roots of the FOI principle date back to the 18th Century, the Age of Enlightenment. The title of a founding father may rightly be bestowed upon the Finnish priest Anders Chydenius who played a crucial role . As a member of the Swedish Parliament from 1766 onwards he was the initiator of the Freedom of Press and the Right of Access to Public Records Act.

On the basis of Anders Chydenius’formulations the Swedish Diet passed the Freedom of Press Act, which was unprecedentedly radical, both in Sweden and in the world in general. The key achievements of the 1766 Act were the abolishment of political censorship and the gaining of public access to government documents. Although the innovation was suspended from 1772-1809, the principle of publicity has since remained central in the Nordic countries. Over recent decades, Anders Chydenius’ legacy has received increased recognition globally. With the creation of the United Nations and international standards on human rights, the right to information began to spread. Freedom of Information is recognized in international law. Article 19 of both the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights provide that every person shall have the right to seek and impart information. There is growing recognition that the right to seek information includes a right of freedom of information. Over the last 10 years there has been a dramatic increase in the number of countries that have adopted Freedom of Information laws. According to a news report, Serbian Student’s Request Reveals Corruption in School, Spurs Government Investigation I.N., a 17-year-old student, sent an access to information request to his school, seeking information about its financial operations and other matters. The institution refused to provide the information, and on several occasions sought to cancel the request on the basis that the requester was a minor. But I.N. appealed to the Commissioner for Information, which ordered that the request be fulfilled. The financial data that the student obtained showed serious abuses and corruption at the school.

Quoting another example, Britain secretly gave Israel nuclear material as documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act ascertain this. Britain secretly supplied plutonium to Israel during the 1960s. Despite warnings from intelligence officials that Israel was seeking to develop a nuclear bomb, Britain made hundreds of shipments of material that may have helped Israel’s nuclear program. The documents describe how officials in the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign Office opposed the deal, which was later forced through by a Jewish civil servant in the Ministry of Technology. (Richard Norton-Taylor, “Britain gave Israel plutonium, files show,” The Guardian, March 10, 2006.)

The evolution of Right to Information in India: India is a welfare state which has implicit faith in democracy. The right of the citizens to know facts about the administration of the country is one of the pillars of a democratic state. The Honorable Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer in his open letter to the Prime Minister of India dated 26th December 1989 has highlighted the fact that the right to know and the freedom of information are inalienable components of the freedom of expression and participation in public affairs which is conferred on every citizen of the country. Much of the common man’s distress and helplessness could be traced to lack of access to information.

The Right to Information Act, 2005 was due to the efforts of the popular grass root movements and the civil society groups in many parts of India. The movement started in the villages. In the 1990s, the Mazdoor Kisan Shakthi Sangh (MKSS), a civil organization, consisting of poor farmers and workers spearheaded the movement to obtain information about expenditures on the government programmes in Rajasthan State. This movement gained importance as the facts revealed wide gaps between the expenditures shown on papers and actual delivery of the developmental and social programmes. MKSS held village level public meetings called “Jan Sunwais”, where the villagers had the freedom to participate in an open forum.
The civil society members headed by astute leaders such as Aruna Roy and Arvind Kejriwal were concerned with corruption that plagued rural government programmes and schemes. These members of civil society were instrumental in mobilizing the illiterate rural folk and making them understand the importance of the Right to Information on their livelihood.

Information which embodies power and responsibility is the backbone of any democracy. A tool like Right to Information (RTI) creates a conducive environment in the pursuit of information. Access to communication is an important prerequisite for development and citizens’ participation in development programmes. A free flow of information regarding performance of the Government encourages participation and opens the door for civil society to engage itself in public policy. The British in India introduced the Official Secrets Act 1923, which is the legislation that did not provide official information in India on state secrets and official information, mainly related to national security. RTI act 2005 is a milestone in the quest for building an informed and prosperous society and overrides the official secrets act.
The Chydenius Principle of Publicity in Action around the World is perhaps the best testimony to the effectiveness of Anders Chydenius’s original idea comes from the creative ways in which journalists, researchers, companies, interest groups, and just plain citizens have made use of the access laws to fix social problems, expose corruption and wrong-doing, and change the ways that governments do their business.

A poor woman from Delhi uses RTI to force a shop to provide rations: A 40 year-old woman who works as a domestic servant discovered that she had been denied her ration share from a government-approved shop in a slum area of south Delhi for more than five years. The impoverished Delhi resident, whose name is Sunita, had been given a ration card for the poor five years ago, but never received any rations from the local shop. She filed a complaint under the Right to Information Act (RTI) and learned that the record incorrectly reflected that she had received the ration during the past five years. Since the discrepancy was revealing, Sunita has been receiving the required ration each month. (“A right that has got them food,” Indo-Asian News Service, April 2, 2005)

Not only were there hundreds of news stories and media broadcasts about the ongoing campaigns and debates over freedom of information laws, but there were also more than a thousand news stories reporting the results of citizens’ access to government information.
The success of the international movement for freedom of information at the National level, with new laws in dozens of countries over the past few years, has brought new attention to the international level of governance. While there is enormous variation in the effectiveness of these laws, and major difficulties remaining in the implementation of such rights in transitional democracies with limited rule-of-law, one hallmark of the dozens of national campaigns has been their attentiveness to other national models and their outreach for international connections and support.

The question of transparency in government has lost none of its significance, although it dates back as far as government itself. How much information can decision-makers entrust citizens with? The answer on this relates directly to the basic constituents of any political entity. In a modern society decision-making must be based on the political will of enlightened citizens, which is expressed through votes and elections. In such a society transparency should be the rule and secrecy the exception. Citizens should be entrusted with as much access to information as possible.

To my countrymen and all the RTI Activists,
The road is too long……..but nevertheless.

This article was published on:
Monday, July 8, 2019

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