Conference to Address Advancements, Challenges to Worldwide Access to Public Information Laws

  • Citizens of the Kouga community of South Africa uncovered public housing fraud by their local government by using their country's Promotion of Access to Information Law, leading to final completion of 40 much-needed homes.
  • Photographs depicting flag-draped caskets carrying U.S. soldiers killed in Afghanistan and Iraq, initially withheld from the public by the Pentagon, were ultimately released following a lawsuit filed under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act.
  • Misuse of funds earmarked for HIV/AIDS patients in Mexico's hospitals was exposed under the country's Federal Transparency and Access to Information Law.

Access to public information matters to the average citizen: it is a human right with the power to make a difference in both individual lives and in the life of a community. Although great advances have been made worldwide over the last decade, countries still face important challenges in the implementation and enforcement of access to information laws.

To that end, The Carter Center will host the International Conference on the Right to Public Information Feb. 27-29, in Atlanta, Ga., with 125 high-ranking officials and civil society leaders from almost 40 countries in attendance. Participants include former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, Bolivian President H.E. Evo Morales, former Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo, civil society leaders, World Bank representatives, and information ministers.

The event is being held at a critical time for global information laws, according to Laura Neuman, assistant director of the Carter Center's Americas Program.

"At The Carter Center, we believe we are at a crossroads. It's an important moment to reflect on advancements over the past decade, to consider the obstacles facing the establishment of a universal right to information, and to begin creating a blueprint for how to move forward and overcome those potential challenges," she said.

During the two-day conference, participants will examine the current worldwide status of the right to public information as well as the impact of access to information on areas such as development and governance, and recommend priority actions for advancing the passage and full implementation of access to public information laws.

While nearly 70 nations have freedom of information laws, the right faces numerous threats including government retreat toward secrecy and ambiguity about whether the benefits of such legislation are fully reaching the most disadvantaged people. The advances must be tempered with diligence, according to Neuman.

"There have been great advances and huge successes, but there are still a number of challenges," she said. "We need to be cautious not to fall into the 'check the box' exercise: we passed a law and that's it. The laws have to be implemented, enforced, and used to be truly transformative."

Some countries with strong access to information laws are "in retreat," she said, with secrecy now stronger than openness.

"The United States is a perfect example. We have more information available and yet paradoxically there are more secrets being created now than ever before. We need to be vigilant if we want to continue to enjoy the right to public information," she added.

Worldwide, a citizen's access to information is fundamental to self-governance, Neuman said.

"When you have information, you can act. You can take part in decision-making and help set public priorities, whether that's about issues like education, health care, or clean water," she said. "When there is no information, when secrecy rules the day, so can systems like apartheid, where the majority were kept in the dark without knowledge and without information."

Conference participants, including key advocates and decision-makers, will continue the push for information access in their own countries and around the world, according to Neuman.

"This conference is bringing together people who are committed to openness, who want to explore the way together, so we can ensure that all citizens enjoy the fundamental human right to information," she said.

The Carter Center has worked in the access to public information field since 1999, working extensively in Jamaica, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Mali, and at the regional level to support the establishment of comprehensive laws and voluntary disclosure strategies and assist their implementation and enforcement. The Carter Center also has worked at the regional level with organizations such as the Organization of American States, the World Bank Institute, and the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association.

Learn more about The Carter Center's Access to Information Project >>

Learn more about the International Conference on the Right to Public Information, February 27-29, 2008 >>

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