Open, participatory and accountable government is contingent on members of the public having access to the largest possible amount of information held by public authorities: it is the right to know what the government knows. Information should only be withheld from the public where absolutely necessary on the basis of harm to legitimate interests where there is no overriding public interest in knowing the information. The right of access to information has been recognised by international human rights tribunals and leading international authorities as being an intrinsic part of the right to freedom of expression.
There are now over 80 countries which have access to information laws, a massive increase from the 13 countries in 1990. Furthermore, in most of the countries that have access to information laws, practice is still mixed, with responsiveness to requests for information being unpredictable and proactive publication practices either poor or patchy. A culture of bureaucratic secrecy prevails in many public administrations and requesters are often asked why they want access to a particular document or piece of information. Exceptions are applied very broadly and time frames for responding are often not respected. Information is not always provided in the requester’s preferred format and in many countries limits on reuse are imposed by government copyright and other rules restricting reuse of public sector information unless a fee is paid. All countries, irrespective of the current levels of transparency, should make the commitment to provide effective guarantees of the fundamental right to information.