< Freedom Of Information Laws Around the World

Transcript

Friday, November 18, 2011

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Americans take freedom of information, or at least the idea of it, for granted. Since 1967, we’ve enjoyed the right, theoretically, to request and receive government information in something like a timely manner. And in the last decade or so, so-called FOIA or right to know laws have become one of America’s principle exports.

Over a hundred countries and the European Union now have them on the books. This year alone seven countries that passed right to know law and eighteen more have such laws under consideration.

But merely passing FOIA laws does not openness make. The Associated Press recently undertook a massive test of freedom of information laws in nearly every country where they're mandated. Lead reporter on the project Martha Mendoza says that they began by asking governments a simple question.

MARTHA MENDOZA:

What we asked for were how many people have been arrested and how many people have been convicted as terrorists since 9/11. After 9/11 the United States and the United Nations pushed countries around the world to adopt anti-terrorism laws. And we wanted to know who’s been swept into that net, who's been identified and convicted as a terrorist?

What we found is that there's been 35,000 convicted terrorists around the world since 9/11.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

So that was the answer to your question. Is that because all these countries were really great about providing the information?

MARTHA MENDOZA:

That piece of information about terrorists being convicted came partly from the freedom-of-information request, but more so from having to go other directions. Only 14 countries answered in full within their legal deadlines. And another 38 countries eventually answered most of the questions, at least providing some numbers.

Interestingly enough, newer democracies were, in general, more responsive than some of the developed ones. Guatemala got back to us in 72 hours. Turkey was very responsive, Mexico was very responsive. Poland gave us everything we asked for very quickly.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

So who were the worst scofflaws?

MARTHA MENDOZA:

The 30-some odd countries that completely ignored it.

[BROOKE LAUGHS]

Kenya actually told our reporter they had never received the request, even though he had had it hand stamped and had a copy to show them.

China was very difficult. They told us we needed to file a freedom-of-information request to find out how to file a freedom-of-information request.

[BROOKE LAUGHS]

And they give us a fax number to send it into, which didn't pick up.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

How about America?

MARTHA MENDOZA:

Well, in the United States I had to mail in six certified letters and email the FBI because you have to go to every agency that might have a record. And although I got about 40 pieces of mail back, most of those were just asking for deadline extensions or acknowledging receipt.

In the end we got responsibly a single sheet of paper with four dates and two words and a large section blacked out and a spreadsheet with all the names blacked out.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

In 2010 and you found that US agencies fully released about 55 percent of the information requested, as opposed to Mexico which released 85 percent of the requested information.

MARTHA MENDOZA:

Yeah. Now, Mexico has what's considered the gold standard of a freedom-of-information law by many, because what they have is a website where you register, and then you log in. And you can even anonymously make a request to any federal agency in Mexico. You don't have to be a citizen. And even Mexican agencies use this law to get information from other agencies because it is so efficient.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Now, you’ve cited India as a special case because India seems to offer the best and the worst outcomes for its citizens that use the FOIA laws.

MARTHA MENDOZA:

There's been tremendous excitement in India in the last five years since they adopted the Right to Know laws. People there have filed about 24,000 requests in 2006. Last year it was about a million. And it has really spawned a culture of anti-corruption [LAUGHS] in India.

However, there's been many attacks, and 12 murders so far, of people who exposed corruption or revealed wrongdoing and, in doing so, became victims of the people who they were finger pointing.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

The countries that have taken on these freedom-of-information laws have been touting them; they’re great PR. But they their incentives for adopting those laws were more financial than moral, right?

MARTHA MENDOZA:

In many cases, yeah. China changed its access to information rules as a condition of joining the World Trade Organization. Pakistan adopted their ordinance in return for 1.4 billion in aid from the International Monetary Fund.

The US State Department ties freedom of information laws to foreign aide. When the citizens rise up and say, we want to have accountability in our government, we want to have transparency, those laws really work.

In countries where the law is adopted as a financial incentive, those are the countries we found more often are ignoring them.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

And so, having finished the study, what do you walk away with? Do you think it really is making a difference? You cite a story in your report about China, and they say, well, we can get all the information we want, but if it doesn't change policy, what's the point?

In China a woman got all the records to show that the government had no right to take her aging mom's house and demolish it. And government officials looked at all her records and said, “Yes, we have no right to take your mother out of her house and demolish your house.” And then they took her mother out of her house and demolished the house. So yes, sometimes having access to information is not going to bring about change.

In Mexico, villagers woke up one morning with tractors in their backyard and were surprised to find out a dam was going to be built to wipe out not just their village but many others. They got public records. They stopped the dam. So yes, sometimes it can make a difference.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

‘Cause you never know. You might be able to stop a dam.

MARTHA MENDOZA:

Exactly. Most people who use these laws are not journalists. Most people who use these laws are just members of the public trying to make a difference.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Martha, thank you very much.

MARTHA MENDOZA:

Oh, thank you.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Martha Mendoza is a reporter for the Associated Press.

Guests:

Martha Mendoza

Hosted by:

Brooke Gladstone