A powerful social accountability tool
Freedom of information is not only a human right, but also an essential tool to engage and empower citizens to demand accountability from governments, and fight corruption. That is why ‘right to information’ (RTI) and the relevant laws, as well as the associated institutions have become a symbol of a society’s commitment to good governance. International experience indicates a strong link between effective RTI laws and good governance. This also explains the growing popularity of RTI laws the world over. Only 19 countries had RTI laws before 1995 and the number has reached around 120 today. The United Nations Human Rights Committee recognises the right to information as a ‘human right’.
Right to Information (RTI) refers to the right of citizens to access information held by the government that documents its actions, functions, expenditure, and so on. The RTI lies at the heart of good governance, of democratic values and the protection of human rights. Citizens can exercise this right by filing a complaint if they are denied access to the information they seek. The RTI law would compel the government to ensure that their offices are properly staffed, funded, trained and equipped to facilitate citizens’ access to official information.
RTI and International Law
While the term ‘freedom of expression’ is mostly understood in its literal context, the ICCPR states: “[E]veryone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.”
The United Nations has recognised the right of access to information since its foundation. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) both enshrine the right to freedom of expression and declare “this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers.”
The UN Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC) also sets obligations for States Parties concerning access to information, which match the rights enshrined in the ICCPR. UNCAC access to information rules consist of several articles. According to Article 13, State Parti have to provide effective access to information upon request. Article 13 also encourages proactive disclosure of information by governments. Other articles, too, include disclosure requirements: Article 5 (preventive anti-corruption policies and practices), Article 7 (public sector, election and funding of political parties), Article 9 (public procurement and management of public finances) and Article 10 (public reporting).
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