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Access to Information: Different Contexts, One Essential Ingredient

Darshana Patel's picture

Andrew Puddephatt’s Exploring the Role of Civil Society in the Formulation and Adoption of Access to Information Laws defines the main contours of Access to Information (ATI) movements in 5 countries (Bulgaria, India, Mexico, South Africa and the United Kingdom).  In Bulgaria, ATI was established by an environmental eco-glasnost movement that emerged in a post-Communist society (glastnost meaning transparency). In India, the ATI movement was embedded in a larger, anti-corruption movement led by the rural poor communities.  In Mexico, a group of social activists and experts from academia and media conducted a targeted campaign for ATI just as Mexico was joining the OECD, NAFTA, and the WTO. The campaign for ATI in South Africa grew out of a post-apartheid civil society which recognized that information (or the systemic denial of it) was a key factor in perpetuating racial, social and economic inequality.  The movement for ATI in the United Kingdom was spearheaded by a specialist NGO that capitalized on a government in the process of implementing broader constitutional reforms.

Although each movement for ATI emerged from vastly different political and social contexts, they share the common element of an active and engaged civil society.  The specific nature of that civil society and its strategies are also vastly different. They even fall at the extremes of a continuum: from a grassroots rural social movement to an elite expert-driven NGO.  In some cases, the civil society groups that were instrumental in the policy formulation process stepped aside to allow other civil society actors to take the lead once the legislation was in place.

Perhaps this goes without saying but the process of designing a policy has a strong impact on the way that policy will be implemented and utilized.  This is especially true for ATI.  Because it is civil society that will ultimately give ATI legislation its power, the advocacy process for the passage of ATI legislation and the implementation and practice of this legislation are deeply intertwined. 

Although the examples of civil society are as diverse as the context in which they were operating, Puddephatt contends that, in the case of ATI, civil society must be involved.  He gives us an example of what happens when this is not the case.

There is no doubt that the impact of civil society upon measures to promote access to information is considerable: as experts, innovators, mobilizers, and sources of advice and support. It is instructive to consider the example of an access to information law for which no civil society involvement occurred. In 2002, Zimbabwe introduced an access to information and privacy law. Although it contained some provisions for providing access to public information, it was so hedged with exemptions and restrictions that the impact was virtually meaningless. In fact, the majority of the provisions of the bill involved restrictions on press freedom; something that would not have passed without protest had civil society been involved in the process.

Photo credit: Flikr user chotda

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