The right to access to information is founded on the broader right to freedom of expression and encompasses the right of every individual to seek and obtain information held by public authorities.
The right to freedom of information was recognised in law for the first time more than two hundred years ago in Sweden, with the publication of the Freedom of Press Law in 1776. It took nearly two centuries before the next such law was adopted in Finland in 1951.
Massive growth in the number of national laws giving individuals the right to access information held by public bodies took place over the past 3 decades.
In 2006, for the first time, the right to access to information was given formal international legal recognition, by the InterAmerican Court of Human Rights in the 2006 case of Claude Reyes and Others v. Chile” and then, in 2009, by the European Court of Human Rights.
In 2011, the United Nations Human Rights Committee further defined the right of access to information in its General Comment on Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights( ICCPR) and urged the states to proactively adopt relevant laws.
It stated: “To give effect to the right of access to information, States parties should proactively put in the public domain Government information of public interest. States parties should make every effort to ensure easy, prompt, effective and practical access to such information. States parties should also enact the necessary procedures, whereby one may gain access to information, such as by means of freedom of information legislation. The procedures should provide for the timely processing of requests for information according to clear rules that are compatible with the Covenant. Fees for requests for information should not be such as to constitute an unreasonable impediment to access to information. Authorities should provide reasons for any refusal to provide access to information. Arrangements should be put in place for appeals from refusals to provide access to information as well as in cases of failure to respond to requests.”
The World Bank’s Policy on Access to Information, which became effective in 2010, was a pivotal shift in the World Bank’s approach to making information available to the public. Underlying the policy is the principle that the World Bank will disclose any information in its possession that is not on its list of exceptions.
The International Monetary Fund also adopted greater openness policies to urge countries to adopt access to information laws within the frames of transparency and reduction of corruption.
The right of access to EU documents is guaranteed by the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (Article 15) and by the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. The Article 42 grants a right of access to documents held by European Union institutions to “[a]ny citizen of the Union, and any natural or legal person residing or having its registered office in a Member State.”
2014 EU Human Rights Guidelines on Freedom of Expression Online and Offline further underlined that the right to freedom of expression includes freedom to seek and receive information (article 14).
The aforementioned normative developments resulted in the inclusion of targets to ensure advancement of the right to access to information on a global scale, within the framework of international development agendas.
In 2015, the United Nations integrated the right to information as part of its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, access to information held by public bodies has been recognised as a necessary facilitating mechanism for public engagement across the Sustainable Goals, wherein UNESCO is tasked with monitoring and reporting the implementations of access to information policies worldwide under Goal 16.
Despite the increasing number of countries enacting right to information laws, 2019 UNESCO research on implementation of SDG 16.10 demonstrates that while there is progress, governments can still introduce and improve access to information laws, as well as better ensure their implementation.
Nowadays, there are 126 countries worldwide that have access to information laws. The proper recognition and protection of this right has become a basic precondition of a democratic society.
- The Global Forum for Media Development has created an overview of resources, updates and actors related to Public Access to Information and SDG16.10
- The RTI Rating, a joint initiative of Access Info Europe and the Center for Law and Democracy encompasses the most relevant comparative law standards. The indicators are divided into seven different categories, namely: right of access, scope, requesting procedures, exceptions and refusals, appeals, sanctions and protections, and promotional measures.
- The website Right2Info contains information on the constitutional and legal framework of over 80 countries.
- FOIAnet’s resource page contains multiple publications, training materials and model laws related to the right of access to information
- The World Press Freedom Index is an annual ranking of countries compiled and published by Reporters Without Borders since 2002 based upon the organisation’s own assessment of the countries’ press freedom records in the previous year.
- UNESCO assists countries in their compliance and implementations of international treaties, agreements, norms and standards related to Universal Access to Information.
- Information and knowledge is publicly available also through numerous related World Bank initiatives such as Open Data, Open knowledge Repository and Open Finances.
- European Union provides information on where to find documents held by the European Commission and other institutions, including legislative information, official documents, and meeting minutes and agendas.