IN 1979 a US nuclear reactor exploded on Three Mile Island, exposing Americans to toxic fallout.
The authorities attempted to shut the media out. However, using the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), a small Pittsburgh newspaper demanded details of the threat. The documents released detailed private conversations between US officials revealing the true extent of the disaster.
Some years later, in 1986, the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe struck Eastern Europe. Yet in this case, in the absence of FOI, the government covered up the disaster and residents remained ignorant of the danger to their lives. In the past 20 years, hundreds of thousands have died as a direct result of the fallout.
The demand to know the truth about Chernobyl resulted in International Right to Know Day, which the world recognises today, 28th September. The significance of commemorating this day is to raise awareness about everyone’s right to know what their government is doing.
Where freedom of expression grants the right to disseminate ideas, freedom of information ensures access to all public documents and records. The absence of freedom of information creates a culture of secrecy in governments which fuels corruption, waste and poor management. When the freedom to obtain public documents is enshrined in law, as in the case of the Three Mile Island incident, ordinary citizens are better protected against corruption, can hold government accountable and influence the decisions that affect their lives.
Freedom of information laws can be used to scrutinise decisions in all areas of government - healthcare, education, housing - as well as parastatal operations.
In South Africa, FOI requests have exposed a range of government malpractices from a corrupt arms deal to illegal land use and misguided HIV policies. In India, FOI laws were used by rural workers to fight for the minimum wage. Information empowers communities. FOI laws are a proven, affordable way to give power back to the people.
In the last decade, more and more countries have recognised that freedom of information is critical to securing good governance.
According to the Carter Centre, 68 countries around the world, including many developing countries, have adopted FOI legislation. Currently six African countries have passed a Freedom of Information Act and several more have the right enshrined in their constitution.