Lack of information denies people the opportunity to develop their potential to the fullest and realise the full range of their human rights. Individual personality, political and social identity and economic capability are all shaped by the information that is available to each person and to society at large. The practice of routinely holding information away from the public creates ‘subjects’ rather than ‘citizens’ and is a violation of their rights. This was recognised by the United Nations at its very inception in 1946, when the General Assembly resolved: “Freedom of Information is a fundamental human right and the touchstone for all freedoms to which the United Nations is consecrated’ Enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the right’s status as a legally binding treaty obligation was affirmed in Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontier? . This has placed the right to access information firmly within the body of universal human rights law.

The right to access information underpins all other human rights. For example, freedom of expression and thought inherently rely on the availability of adequate information to inform opinions. The realization of the right to personal safety also requires that people have sufficient information to protect themselves. In Canada, a court has recognized that the right to security creates a corollary right to information about threats to personal safety which would be violated if the police force knew of a threat and failed to provide that information to the threatened individual. The right to food is also often reliant on the right to information. In India for example, people have used access laws to find out about their ration entitlements and to expose the fraudulent distribution of food grains. Quite simply, the right to information is at the core of the human rights system because it enables citizens to more meaningfully exercise their rights, assess when their rights are at risk and determine who is responsible for any violations.

It is important that access to information is recognised as a right because it:

Accords it sufficient importance, as being inherent to democratic functioning and a pre-condition to good governance and the realisation of all other human rights. Becomes part of the accepted international obligations of the state.This means that the right to access information attracts the guarantee of protection by the state. Distances it from being merely an administrative measure by which information is gifted by governments to their people at their discretion since a legally enforceable right cannot be narrowed or ignored at the whim of government. Creates a duty-holder on the one hand and a beneficiary of a legal entitlement on the other. Non-disclosure of information is therefore a violation and the beneficiary can seek legal remedy. Signals that information belongs to the public and not government. The idea that everything is secret unless there is a strong reason for releasing it is replaced by the idea that all information is available unless there are strong reasons for denying it. The onus is on the duty-holder to prove its case for refusing to disclose documents. Sets a higher standard of accountability. Gives citizens the legal power to attack the legal and institutional impediments to openness and accountability that stifi dominate the operations of many governments. It moves the locus of control from the state to the citizen, reinstating the citizen as sovereign. The right to information holds within it the right to seek information, as well as the duty to give information, to store, organise, and make it easily available, and to withhold it only when it is proven that this is in the best public interest. The duty to enable access to information rests with government and encompasses two key aspects: enabling citizens to access”

“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless frontiers”.

UN Principles on Freedom. of Information:

  • Public bodies have an obligation to disclose information and every member of the public has a corresponding right to receive information; “information” includes all records held by a public body, regardless of the form. in which it is stored;
  • Freedom of information implies that public bodies publish and disseminate widely documents of significant public interest, for example, operational information about how the public body functions and the content of any decision or policy affecting the public;
  • As a minimum, the law on freedom of information should make provision for public education and the dissemination of information regarding the right to have access to information; the law should also provide for a number of mechanisms to address the problem of a culture of secrecy within Government;
  • A refusal to disclose information may not be based on the aim to protect Governments from embarrassment or the exposure of wrongdoing; a complete list of the legitimate aims which may justify non disclosure should be provided in the law and exceptions should be narrowly drawn so as to avoid including material which does not harm the legitimate interest;
  • All public bodies should be required to establish open, accessible internal systems for ensuring the public’s right to receive information; the law should provide for strict time limits for the processing of requests for information and require that any refusaLs be accompanied by substantive written reasons for the refusal(s);
  • The cost of gaining access to information held by public bodies should not be so high as to deter potential applicants and negate the intent of the law itselC
  • The law should establish a presumption that all meetings of governing bodies are open to the public;
  • The law should require that other legislation be interpreted, as far as possible, in a manner consistent with its provisions; the regime for exceptions provided for in the freedom of information law should be comprehensive and other laws should not be permitted to extend it Individuals should be protected from any legal, administrative or employment related sanctions for releasing information on wrongdoing, viz, the commission of a criminal offence or dishonesty, failure to comply with a legal obligation, a miscarriage of justice, corruption or dishonesty or serious failures in the administration of a public body