A View on Freedom of Information

– By Apoorva Mishra

Everyone has a right to seek, impart and receive information under the right of freedom of expression. This right to Freedom of Information is the key to achieving many other rights, securing democracy and enabling development. It is also intended to promote a culture of openness among public authorities and to give people the right to access much of the information they hold.

Governments and public bodies hold masses of important information. They hold it on behalf of the public and should therefore:

  • proactively publish information in the public interest.
  • provide open access to people wanting specific information.

The right of freedom of information is based on the principle that the government is required to serve the people. Information forms a very important part of the democracy. It leads to accountability, transparency and good governance.

Role of Information?

  • Gives people a fair chance to know the information, to know what’s happening and give their opinions and debate on the relevant matters.
  • Keeps a check on the government and makes sure that there is transparency maintained.
  • Ensures free and fair election.
  • Gives authority to the civil society and the journalists to expose corruption and wrong doing.
  • Enables people to have access to their personal information.

‘Information’ should include all information held by a public body, regardless of form, creator, date, or classification. Public bodies include executive, legislative and judicial branches of the state, as well as public corporations and publicly-funded bodies. It should be the responsibility of the information holder to prove that it is legitimate to deny access.

Exemption

Most open records laws are based on the presumption that everything is public, unless specifically exempted. Some states specify certain categories of information that always are public. Many exceptions to public access are subject to agency discretion, so one can always try to convince officials that it would be in the public’s interest to release the requested information. In most states, only a few specifically designated types of records are required to be kept secret, for example:

Law enforcement and investigative files: These may be exempt across the board, or may resemble the federal statute, which permits information to be withheld only when some specified harm to the investigation or an individual involved would result from disclosure.

Commercially valuable information: These exemptions usually protect from disclosure information provided by private companies to the government, such as commercially sensitive or trade secret information in licensing or contract applications.

National security: These exemptions are intended to protect from disclosure those documents that if released could potentially harm security interests. At the federal level, these are often documents containing “classified” information.

Freedom of Information and Media

Freedom of Information should not be misused by the media by generating stories against the Government. Freedom of Information is an important tool to provide better understanding to the people who want to know how the government functions, why or how the government makes a particular decision. Media, on the other hand, would prefer a less open government. It is the job of journalists to hold the government to account on behalf of the public. The Freedom of Information Act is a vital tool in their armoury which should not and must not be removed or weakened.

Conclusion

Despite the remarkable trend towards adoption of Freedom of Information, the public in general still faces a lot of obstacles. There is a need for better effective mechanism to cater to public needs. The principle of maximum disclosure dictates that individuals should be granted access to all information held by public bodies, except for very limited and clearly specified categories, subject to harm and public interest tests. It is not unusual for exceptions, along with the reference to official secret acts, to justify arbitrary denials of information access. Perhaps the greatest challenge of all is the shift from a culture of secrecy to one of transparency. This entails a fundamental change in mindsets of politicians and bureaucrats, as well as building public awareness to encourage active exercise of the right to know.

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