A few days ago, The New York Times published a piece on Indian citizens who have been intimidated, harassed, and killed because they made access to information requests on questionable government activities. Many previous posts on this blog have featured successes and failures regarding various country experiences on right/access to information laws and their uneven implementation. We have discussed threats and violence experienced by courageous people who have attempted to use such laws to dig up corrupt practices occurring in their own backyards. These individuals are especially brave because they are located where the many eyes and ears of the mighty and powerful can easily find them. They have nowhere to hide.
The recent story in The Times leaves no room for doubt or speculation. People have been brutally murdered in their valiant efforts to uncover government malfeasance. In the epic battle between transparency regimes and cultures of impunity, are we willing to let brave, unsung citizen-heroes be treated like foot soldiers that well-meaning policymakers and elites dispassionately send into battles that may, if we’re lucky, eventually win the war? If so, do access to information laws equip citizens with swords to fight for improved governance, but not shields to defend themselves?
Of course, access to information regimes tend to cover a wide range of government data and information. Many types of information requests, such as those pertaining to personal health records (of the requestor) and government salary scales, can be deemed less threatening than others. But when you start asking questions about high-stakes corruption, whether at the local or national level, it is reasonable to expect that special interests will mobilize their own troops and resources to block you. In contexts where powerful players are used to acting with impunity, lesser beings who dare ask difficult questions and seek to back up allegations of wrongdoing with hard evidence are especially vulnerable. And, yet, it sometimes seems that this type of “citizen demand for accountability” is uncritically expected by many of those who advocate for transparent and accountable governance in the global system. Some experts might even say that the proper policy response to this problem lies in the rule of law – which, in theory, should protect life, limb, and property of all citizens. They might say that these laws should be sufficient, if they can be made to work. I think this is an extremely naïve view. The problem of intimidation and violence against information requestors exists precisely because the rule of law is not operational; impunity thrives when the likelihood of sanction is low. And we are talking about sensitive information that, if brought to light, can affect the rent-seeking opportunities of powerful elites.
Let’s consider other examples that have something to do with the role of information in uncovering wrongdoing by powerful actors. In some countries, mechanisms are in place that provide protection to people who decide to share privileged information with authorities. While it certainly takes courage to do this, and while protections are not impenetrable, the safety and security of the information holder are explicit public concerns wherever sensible whistleblower protections exist. Also, in some countries, training programs have been made available to journalists so that they can keep themselves out of harm's way. For example, journalists under threat have been taught to vary their daily routines so that potential assailants can’t use predictable behavioral patterns in planning attacks. It is certainly the case that too many journalists have been harmed and killed around the world, despite being members of a non-combatant professional community. Still, we can think of places where whistleblowers and journalists, individuals who handle and publicize sensitive information, are given both swords and shields as a matter of policy and practice.
For the average citizen who seeks to exercise her or his right to information, there are no special protections against physical threats. And from a policy standpoint, there is no easy fix. But consider this. Citizens are members of overlapping constituencies that are held together by a confluence of vested interests, altruistic desires, and social norms. At the local, national, and global levels, there are civic groups, professional associations, NGOs, religious organizations, schools, and a host of civil society organizations with which one can form alliances, networks, and coalitions. Even government is not monolithic. There are likely to be honest officials, bureaucrats, and police and military officers one can work with, even if their contributions are made from behind the scenes. Exercising the right to information of public import is surely a critical piece of any reform effort, but it is only one piece. And despite the heady heroism of an individual standing up for her or his rights and those of the community, one need not go it alone, especially in places where it isn’t sensible to do so. There is strength, and safety, in numbers.
Photo credit: Flickr user DaveBleasdale