Public’s right to know

Information is the oxygen of democracy. If people do not know what is happening in their society, if the actions of those who rule them are hidden, then they cannot take a meaningful part in the affairs of that society. But information is not just a necessity for people – it is an essential part of good government. Bad government needs secrecy to survive. It allows inefficiency, wastefulness and corruption to thrive. As Amartya Sen, the Nobel Prize-winning economist has observed, there has not been a substantial famine in a country with a democratic form of government and a relatively free press. Information allows people to scrutinise the actions of a government and is the basis for proper, informed debate of those actions. 

Most governments, however, prefer to conduct their business in secret. In Swahili, one of the words for government means “fierce secret”. Even democratic governments would rather conduct the bulk of their business away from the eyes of the public. And governments can always find reasons for maintaining secrecy – the interests of national security, public order and the wider public interest are a few examples. Too often governments treat official information as their property, rather than something which they hold and maintain on behalf of the people.

That is why ARTICLE 19 has produced this set of international principles – to set a standard against which anyone can measure whether domestic laws genuinely permit access to official information. They set out clearly and precisely the ways in which governments can achieve maximum openness, in line with the best international standards and practice.

Principles are important as standards but on their own they are not enough. They need to be used – by campaigners, by lawyers, by elected representatives and by public officials. They need applying in the particular circumstances that face each society, by people who understand their importance and are committed to transparency in government. We publish these principles as a contribution to improving governance and accountability and strengthening democracy across the world.