Freedom of Information Laws Benefit Government and Public

By Jane Morse
USINFO Staff Writer

Washington - Freedom of information (FOI) laws benefit both the public and the government, although governments are sometimes reluctant to adopt them, says William Ferroggiaro, a Washington-based writer and consultant with more than 15 years of experience as an advocate for government accountability.

Ferroggiaro spoke with participants from Egypt, Guyana, Macedonia, Madagascar, Pakistan and other parts of the world during a USINFO Webchat December 14.

In the United States, the Freedom of Information Act ensures the public's right to access U.S. government records and is an important component of ensuring the government's accountability to the people it serves, Ferroggiaro said.

The act prevents the creation of secret laws and regulations, he said.  Through it, he added, “the public can have access to documents, although after the fact, that discuss policies that affect their daily lives. Knowing that the public will find out about ill-conceived ideas potentially prevents those ideas from being put forward.”

For the government, freedom of information laws provide a legal mechanism for disclosure of information and improve credibility before the public, Ferroggiaro said.

The U.S. Freedom of Information Act was passed by Congress in 1966 and went into effect in 1967. There were “a lot of political battles,” however, to make it the law of the land, Ferroggiaro acknowledged. Currently, more than 70 countries have some legal right of access to information, he said.

“But it is difficult for countries anywhere to enact and implement such laws,” Ferroggiaro said. Although the United Kingdom enacted its law in 2002, he noted, the law went into effect only recently.

“It is difficult for governments to see the benefit of public access to information,” he said. “And in developing countries, FOI may not seem like the first priority against other pressing needs. But countries like India and South Africa have demonstrated that FOI or right to information is absolutely essential to enabling other human rights, such as right to food and water, right to shelter, let alone freedom of expression.

“In developing countries that have a law, there is great expectation that it will reduce corruption and some evidence of that, but it is also a long struggle that must go forward with other complementary initiatives for justice, such as judicial reform,” Ferroggiaro said.

“Information is the lifeblood of democracy,” he said, “and we must remain forever vigilant to protect that right.”

A transcript of the webchat and information about upcoming webchats are available on USINFO Webchat Station.

Additonal information is available on the National Security Archive Freedom of Information Web site.