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A long way to go for freedom of information

Media Release

A long way to go for freedom of information

Freedom of information has come a long way globally since the first legislation was introduced by Sweden in 1766 and the United States in 1966, but it’s been a slow and difficult process and there is still a long way to go.

That’s the view of Professor Alasdair Roberts, of Syracuse University in New York, who will be a keynote speaker at the International Conference for Information Commissioners in Wellington this week.

New Zealand, Australia and Canada all introduced legislation in the early eighties but it wasn’t until the nineties and this decade that a large wave of other countries followed. Today around 70 countries have freedom of information legislation but Professor Roberts says very few if any have their laws working really successfully.

“I don’t know of any countries where it works smoothly – it’s always a difficult and politically fraught process and it can be a time consuming process – the challenges of making it work can be quite substantial.”

“The adoption of a law is one thing but making it work is another – these laws are complicated devices and need a lot of care and attention to work properly.”

Another major challenge to freedom of information is the increasing use of private contractors to carry out what is essentially government business.

“Just at the moment we get all the countries lined up to adopt the laws – we have this other trend, privatisation, which has a lot of government functions going some place else – we have captured the top of the hill but everyone has moved to another hill.”

Professor Roberts says one of the ways freedom of information can move forward is for countries to work together on solving problems and learning from each other.

“The gathering you have in NZ is quite remarkable and very unusual – it couldn’t have happened ten years ago because then only a small number of countries had adopted FOI laws. So here we have a global community of people interested in FOI – but it’s also in very early stages and the various members of the community have to work together to figure out how they are going to move the cause forward.”

Another important factor in ensuring effective freedom of information is the Information Commissioner or in some countries, the Ombudsman.

“Commissioners can play an important role in making these laws work – they need to push governments to keep processes simple and open. Very often commissioners wait for a complaint to come in the door but it would be better for them to proactively target departments that are repeat offenders.”

Professor Roberts says while the idea of transparency has gained a lot of traction, in terms of global impact we are in an early phase. He says wealthy established democracies have a hard enough time making their laws work but it is especially difficult for developing nations.

“These countries face a real challenge, they don’t have the wealth and even sometimes the rule of law to back it up – it really can be difficult to get the laws to work in these circumstances.”

Professor Roberts says learning from each other takes more than just comparing legislation.

“We need better research on how these laws work and compare in practice– it’ s easy to look at the laws and say this one looks better than that one but what we really don’t know very well is how they work in practice, who uses these laws and what they do with the information when they get it.”

Professor Roberts will be addressing the conference on:
Tuesday 27th November
9.15am in the Banquet Hall at Parliament.

Those journalists wishing to attend who do not have parliamentary press passes must contact the Ombudsman’s office as soon as possible.

[ends]

conference programme can be found on www.icic2007.org.nz

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