human rights news & views

Freedom to seek and receive

The Rudd government appears to be delivering on a key election promise: to reform freedom of information (FOI) law in Australia, currently ranked 28th in the world for press freedom.

Senator John Faulkner

Special Minister for State, John Faulkner (pictured), last week released draft legislation slated to improve Australians' right to seek and receive information from their government.

Further, he claims to be striving for a change of culture from "one of resistance to one of disclosure", which he admits will be a 'challenge'.

Media organisations have been enthusiastic.  The Sydney Morning Herald calls Labor's proposals "comprehensive, considered and ambitious."  Watch Senator Faulkner launching the Bill at the Australia's Right to Know conference of media organisations, followed by Q&A from journalists.

A little-known clause within the right to freedom of expression (ICCPR, art. 19.2) is the corresponding right to seek and receive information:

"Everyone 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."

This 'right to know' is crucial to democracy and so many other rights.  It's how we hold public authorities accountable and monitor rights compliance.

How can we protect the right to health, for instance, if we don't know what's being dumped in our waterways?  How can we assess our immigration policies if denied access to detention facilities?

Labor's draft FOI Bill promises an FOI Office acting as a central 'clearing house' for federal government documents, co-located with the Privacy Commissioner.  Two new posts will be created: the Information Commissioner with the power to review FOI decisions made by public servants, plus an FOI Commissioner:

"an independent champion of FOI, charged with overseeing agencies' compliance with both the letter and the spirit of the legislation."

Exemptions by which government departments and agencies may withhold information will be curtailed.  No longer may FOI requests be rejected because sought-after documents were written by senior officials or because they could result in:

". . . embarrassment to the Commonwealth Government . . . the applicant misinterpreting or misunderstanding the document . . . [or] confusion or unnecessary debate."

Importantly, 'pro-disclosure' obligations will extend to private service providers with government contracts.

Further, fees for FOI applications will be abolished, and other charges reduced, making the process more accessible for all Australians.

In addition to a Bill already introduced to abolish conclusive certificates, when passed into law, these reforms signal a welcome departure from the "entrenched secrecy" surrounding the previous government.

Now it's up to us to monitor rights compliance with all the freedoms we may enjoy.  The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.

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