In many countries around the world there are laws in place that provide procedures by which citizens and journalists can request access to documents of institutions. This can be a valuable source for (investigative) journalists.
This page describes the Right to Information (or Freedom of Information – see the definitions box) from the perspective of its usage by journalists.
RTI vs ATI vs FOI: definitions
The terms Right to Information (RTI), Access to Information (ATI) and Freedom of Information (FOI) are often used interchangeably, even in official documentation.
The terminology can also change depending on location. The UK and US both have a Freedom of Information Act, for instance, while India has a Right to Information Act and Canada an Access to Information Act. Meanwhile, EU institutions use the phrasing ‘right of access to documents‘. These all refer to the right to request government documents.
Access to Information is often also used in a much broader sense. It may refer to all citizens having access (through media) to the information they need to make informed decisions about their lives. It can also denote the ability to share information through media and society, both online and offline.
Read more about the links between freedom of expression and the right to seek information in UNESCO‘s 2009 resource: Freedom of expression, access to information and empowerment of people
In this section you can learn about:
- The threats posed to the Right to Information (RTI) – even once RTI acts have been ratified
- RTI Digital tools – how technology can help journalists exercise their RTI
Threats to RTI
In 2016, the Access to Information Law was passed in Tunisia. The engagement of civil society was crucial in ratifying the law. However, despite the legal progress, Civil Society Organisations in Tunisia have raised some flags. These issues threaten people’s rights to information, not only in Tunisia, but all over the world:
- Lack of knowledge/understanding about the Access to Information Law (national and local media).
- Lack of practical skills of journalists and media organizations to undertake a successful Right to Information Request (RTI).
- Lack of critical attitude (journalists prefer to use informal sources) .
- Lack of coordination/cooperation between civil society organizations and the media to undertake joint action when public information is not provided by the public institutions/government.
- Lack of responsiveness of the (local) government to RTI requests.
These problems demonstrate that the existence of a law is not enough to guarantee that information remains accessible to all. Journalists must understand how RTI requests work and how they can collaborate with CSOs and the public to place greater pressure on governments to respond to RTI requests.
There are some helpful tips to bear in mind when pursuing documents and exercising your right to information. Here is some advice from investigative journalists and media litigators in reference to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) which is applicable to all information requests:
- Approach the FOIA as you would any other investigative story, i.e. do your research, be thorough and don’t give up!
- Proper prior research could save you months of waiting – make sure your request is written well and describes the desired records in detail, and send the request to the most appropriate custodian/office to bypass bureaucracy.
- For some historical documents there may be multiple versions, so don’t limit your requests to one agency/office e.g. colonial ministries sometimes produced 20 copies of the same document and whilst one office may redact the document, others might not.
- Make the most of the information provided – if you are given a redacted document, even the smallest detail (name, address) could change the course of your investigation. The methodology of rejection could also provide clues, e.g. an agency could provide a list of the documents they will withhold from court; the names of these documents could reveal information.
- Treat it like a game to deal with the frustration of rejection – always think of new ways around the request.
- If your request is rejected, always appeal the decision (appeals are more likely to be successful than original requests).
Check out the recording of the panel discussion with these investigative journalists and media litigators here:
All the panel members agreed that whilst the FOIA is flawed, it is the best we have and should be taken advantage of. It’s a crucial way in which we can maintain the foundation of democracy, demand transparency and foster accountability.
The FOIA is especially important in the current media climate of ‘fake news’; the panelists argued that public distrust in the media can be improved by building upon the credibility of primary sources. By requesting government documents and building investigations around these sources the integrity of the press can be restored.
Key resources for understanding and overcoming threats to RTI
This ‘Legal Leaks Toolkit’ was prepared by Access Info Europe and the Network for Reporting on Eastern Europe n-ost. It’s a step-by-step guide to RTI and also provides advice on how to submit a RTI request.
This RTI process is challenging enough without time pressures or administrative obstacles arising from conflicts, emergencies or pandemics. Yet in moments of crisis, RTI becomes more important than ever:
– Access to accurate and timely information helps people make safe choices, for themselves and their families
– Access to information promotes accountability regarding the highly impactful decisions governments make during emergencies.
Digital RTI tools
Advances in technology have no doubt advanced journalists’ ability to exercise their RTI. But a result of this is that in some societies, a digital gap results in an information gap. CSOs can help identify these emerging digital-information gaps and (in the case of Freedom Forum) ensure that existing technology can be harnessed to protect the RTI.
Nepalese RTI app
In 2007 Nepal passed a RTI act, but the Nepali NGO Freedom Forum realised that the act was not adequately respected. They developed a mobile app to inform both journalists and local government officials about procedures and changes related to the 2007 RTI act.
Freedom Forum‘s report into the orientation sessions led for women and youth groups to get them acquainted with the app and RTI more generally.
As well as government officials and journalists, RTI activists, CSOs and human rights defenders have also benefitted from this RTI learning and sharing platform. The Right to Information (RTI) App, available on Google Play, is an integrated RTI package covering principles and practice, and includes:
- Basic RTI info
- A practical guide to using RTI
- A download & template-sharing function for RTI requests, complaints and appeals
- News updates
- Success stories & case studies
- Discussion forums for RTI activists/ campaigners across Nepal
A few of the main newspapers in Nepal (The Himalayan Times and My Republica) helped promote and publicise the app.
RTI and Gender Equality
The article examines the issue of gender inequity in the exercise of the right of access to information by exploring the legislative framework underpinning the right for women, detailing the value of information for women, describing the principal obstacles that propagate information asymmetries, and exploring potential responses to advance a more universal right to information.