Files moving from File cabinet to Computer

World Now Celebrates "International Right-to-Know Day"

In a development that barely could have been envisioned by the drafters of the Freedom of Information Act four decades ago, and with a force that has been accelerating around the globe, people in a fast-growing number of nations now celebrate "International Right-to-Know Day" on September 28 of each year to recognize and promote the worldwide proliferation of government openness.

This movement was begun by a group of openness-in-government proponents from roughly three dozen nations who joined together in Sofia, Bulgaria on September 28, 2002 to form a coalition known as the "Freedom of Information Advocates Network." They chose the annual commemoration of this event "in order to symbolize the global movement for promotion of the right to information." In the United States, of course, "Freedom of Information Day" is celebrated each year on March 16, which was chosen because it is James Madison's birthday. See FOIA Update, Vol. XIV, No. 3, at 8-9 (describing Department of Justice efforts commemorating Freedom of Information Day); see also FOIA Update, Vol. XV, No. 2, at 1-2 (same).

Thirty-eight years ago, when the Freedom of Information Act was enacted, the United States stood nearly alone in the world in providing an enforceable legal mechanism for public access to the official records of a national government. That remained so for more than fifteen years before the next nation, Australia, enacted its own counterpart law. In fact, when the Office of Information and Privacy was formed in November of 1981, the only other nations with openness-in-government laws were Sweden, whose freedom of information tradition traces back to 1766, and Finland, whose legal system carried forth that tradition when it gained its independence from Sweden in 1919.

Since 1981, as worldwide interest in freedom of information (or "transparency in government" as it internationally is known) has grown, OIP has met with representatives of what is now a total of more than eighty nations interested in the adoption of their own government information access laws, providing briefings on the operation of our statute and advice on the development and implementation of their potential counterpart laws. See, e.g., Department of Justice Annual FOIA Report for Calendar Year 2003 at 105-06, subsection (f) (describing twenty-two such briefings conducted in 2003). Indeed, it has been United States government policy for many years to strongly encourage the proliferation of FOIA-like laws overseas. See FOIA Post, "OIP Gives FOIA Implementation Advice to Other Nations" (posted 12/12/02).

During the past two decades the spread of government transparency around the world has been quite remarkable. Beginning with the Commonwealth nations of Australia, New Zealand, and Canada in 1982-1983, and fueled by the break-up of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, dozens of nations have pursued the development of FOIA-like systems with great success. And as a rule, they have built on the experiences of the nations that came before them, taking pains not to repeat any misjudgments or miscalculations that were made elsewhere.

In some cases, these efforts involved many years of internal deliberation, much as took place in the United States between 1955 and 1966 when the FOIA was the subject of protracted consideration in Congress. Japan, for example, began sending representatives to OIP in late 1981 but its national openness-in-government law did not come into existence until almost twenty years later, in 2001. Similarly, in the United Kingdom, where freedom of information advocates had an uphill battle against the longstanding British tradition that is embodied in its Official Secrets Act, their efforts still have not yet reached fruition; England's FOIA counterpart is on the books, but its effective date has been extended by more than four years so that it does not take effect until 2005. Mexico, by contrast, developed and implemented its counterpart statute relatively quickly; it became law in June 2003 after only a one-year implementation period.

Today, more than fifty-five nations, covering all continents of the world save Antarctica, have established openness-in-government regimes similar to the FOIA at the national government level. They range from Ireland to Romania in Europe, from India to Thailand in Asia, from Peru to Argentina in South America, and to South Africa as well. In fact, this latter nation was the site of an international conference on government transparency that was held in Cape Town in February of this year, where the United States was represented by a director of OIP. Also held this past year was a program entitled "Global Access to Information," which was conducted by the American Society of Access Professionals in San Diego and featured representatives of multiple nations. Coincidentally, at the very time at which this program was being held in March of 2004, Argentina joined the international FOIA community, coming "on line" with the help of implementation and training assistance from OIP's deputy director on site in Buenos Aires. Argentina now holds the distinctions of having one of the shortest implementation times (ninety days) and of implementing a FOIA-like regime by executive fiat alone.

Indeed, over the years many nations have asked for assistance from the United States not just in their consideration of the adoption of FOIA-like laws, but also in the implementation of their newly enacted laws as well. Toward that end, OIP provided consultation assistance to the U.K. several times in London, at the request of its Lord Chancellor's Office, during that nation's four-year implementation process, and it provided on-site training in Mexico City to assist Mexico's implementation of its law, in addition to its recent assistance to Argentina this past year. OIP's co-directors also have appeared on television broadcasts in Mexico, South Korea, Peru, Paraguay, Japan, Bolivia, Chile, and the Czech Republic promoting government transparency activities in those countries.

Most currently, OIP's deputy director will be traveling next month to China, where freedom of information principles have remarkably begun taking root even in that nation. Last year, at the request of the China Law Center of Yale Law School and in coordination with the Department of State, she went to China to engage in several days of discussions of openness-in-government principles with officials of several provinces of China that have been moving in that direction largely as an anti-corruption measure in the wake of the SARS epidemic there. At the end of October, she will be representing the United States in meetings with members of both China's provincial and national governments as they work toward what everyone involved anticipates actually could become a national freedom of information law in China in the not-too-distant future.

On the horizon, it would seem to be only a matter of time before a majority of the more than two-hundred nations of the world will have formal openness-in-government regimes. The most recent such nation to join the "FOIA club" is the Dominican Republic, where freedom of information legislation was signed into law just this past month. Right now, several other nations -- including Ecuador, Germany, Nigeria, Russia, and El Salvador -- are actively considering such legislation. Whether driven by the worldwide movement toward greater democracy or the desire to use government openness as a tool for combating government corruption, or both, more and more countries are seeing the value of FOIA-like laws and are looking to the United States, foremost among other nations, as a model to be followed.  (posted 9/28/04)

Go to: Main FOIA Post Page// DOJ FOIA Page // DOJ Home Page