freedom of information

Freedom of expression organisation ARTICLE 19 has warned that the coronavirus pandemic could have a negative impact on global freedom of information. 

In recent years, there have been significant advances to freedom of information with 90% of the world’s population now living in a country with a Right to Information law or policy.

However, in a new report, Ensuring the Public’s Right to Know in the COVID-19 Pandemic, published today, ARTICLE 19 has highlighted several threats to governments’ obligations on access to information and public health under human rights law. These include:

  • Governments trying to limit criticism of poor decision-making or as a larger effort to restrict human rights or hide corruption  
  • Emergency legislation that limits access to information about the pandemic and/or extends the deadlines by which governments have to respond 
  • Public access to information not being prioritised while public services are reduced.

Head of Transparency David Banisar said:

“During the coronavirus pandemic, access to information is more important than ever, as the public need to know exactly what their governments are doing to tackle the crisis.  

“By being open and transparent, governments can raise awareness and gain the public’s trust, both of which are essential for fighting misinformation about the virus. The right to information is also essential for ensuring governments are held to account for their policies and increased public spending during this time.

“Above all, governments must not use the pandemic as an opportunity to cover up incompetence, corruption or wider human rights abuses.”

Current threats to FOI during the pandemic

  • Romania, Serbia and Moldova and passed measures that have extended the times that public officials have to respond to freedom of information requests.
  • In the US, the FBI announced in March that they would only accept freedom of information requests sent by mail not through its online portal. This has since been changed.
  • In Russia, the closure of many regional government bodies means it is not possible to request information. Other public authorities are not responding within the legal timeframe. Examples include a request by human rights activists to the Moscow Department of IT about the facial recognition system made on 9th April. Despite a seven-day time limit for responding, there was still no response by 23rd April.
  • In Poland, provisions within the COVID Act, mean that the ability to quickly obtain public information will in practice depend only on the goodwill of the authority.
  • In the UK, the Information Commissioner’s Office, which is responsible for FOI, announced it would be flexible around enforcing FOI during the pandemic. On April 3, not-for-profit organisation Foxglove made a FOI request  for details of controversial patient data-sharing deals that the UK Government was doing with tech companies.  As of May 7, Foxglove still hadn’t received a response.

 ARTICLE 19 is calling on governments to:

  • Ensure that delays in responding to FOI requests are limited
  • Give priority to coronavirus-related requests
  • Provide electronic access for making requests and receiving information while physical requests are not possible
  • Proactive publish information about the outbreak and their responses
  • Ensure that oversight bodies and appeals processes are still operating
  • Maintain access to the courts for important FOI cases
  • Ensure public access to information about crucial health and environmental laws
  • Maintain full records while staff may be working remotely.

The report also provides governments with a detailed list of information that they should be proactively sharing with the public during the pandemic.  The recommendations include:

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by Article 19

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