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The Right to Know

The Right to Know: Transparency for an Open World

Ann Florini Editor
FOREWORD BY Joseph E. Stiglitz
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  • Book Info
    The Right to Know
    Book Description:

    The Right to Know is a timely and compelling consideration of a vital question: What information should governments and other powerful organizations disclose? Excessive secrecy corrodes democracy, facilitates corruption, and undermines good public policymaking, but keeping a lid on military strategies, personal data, and trade secrets is crucial to the protection of the public interest.

    Over the past several years, transparency has swept the world. India and South Africa have adopted groundbreaking national freedom of information laws. China is on the verge of promulgating new openness regulations that build on the successful experiments of such major municipalities as Shanghai. From Asia to Africa to Europe to Latin America, countries are struggling to overcome entrenched secrecy and establish effective disclosure policies. More than seventy now have or are developing major disclosure policies or laws. But most of the world's nearly 200 nations do not have coherent disclosure laws; implementation of existing rules often proves difficult; and there is no consensus about what disclosure standards should apply to the increasingly powerful private sector.

    As governments and corporations battle with citizens and one another over the growing demand to submit their secrets to public scrutiny, they need new insights into whether, how, and when greater openness can serve the public interest, and how to bring about beneficial forms of greater disclosure. The Right to Know distills the lessons of many nations' often bitter experience and provides careful analysis of transparency's impact on governance, business regulation, environmental protection, and national security. Its powerful lessons make it a critical companion for policymakers, executives, and activists, as well as students and scholars seeking a better understanding of how to make information policy serve the public interest.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-51207-7
    Subjects: Business, Political Science, Law

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. vii-viii)
    Joseph E. Stiglitz

    There is growing international recognition of the importance of transparency for meaningful and effective democratic processes. How can citizens meaningfully express their voice about what the government is doing if they do not know what the government is doing? And how can they check government abuses? Indeed, what is probably the world’s most effective anticorruption NGO, Transparency International, focuses its attention on transparency. As the old expression has it, “Sunshine is the strongest antiseptic.”

    Excessive secrecy has a corrosive effect on virtually all aspects of society and governance by undermining the quality of public decision making and preventing citizens from...

  4. Introduction: The Battle Over Transparency
    (pp. 1-16)
    Ann Florini

    The cliché is not quite right: information by itself is not power. But it is an essential first step in the exercise of political and economic power. Opening up flows of information changes who can do what. That is why there are few more important struggles in the world today than the battle over who gets to know what.

    But the debate over transparency and access to information is more than a power struggle. It is also a war of ideas about what transparency is good for and when secrecy may better serve the public interest. This is no trivial...


    • Chapter One India: Grassroots Initiatives
      (pp. 19-53)
      Shekhar Singh

      In India, as perhaps the world over, the battle for the right to information is a battle for political space. Many elements in the Indian society and system of governance make this a critical battle. For one, India is a robust democracy where political parties and candidates have to work very hard to influence voters. Increasingly, the people of India have been demanding better governance and are no longer willing to rely solely on elections to hold officials accountable. The right to information has given them an opportunity to call their government and its functionaries to account not only once...

    • Chapter Two Toward a More Open China?
      (pp. 54-91)
      Jamie P. Horsley

      The People’s Republic of China has joined the international movement toward greater government transparency, including making government records and decision making more accessible to its citizens.¹ While China is very much aware of and indeed has drawn lessons from this international trend, the primary motivating force is domestic dynamics.

      Transparency in China is in a transitional phase. Like many countries, China has a long tradition of government secrecy. The incremental progress toward greater information openness over the past twenty-five years was not triggered by a particular national crisis or scandal, as happened in the United States and Eastern Europe, although...

    • Chapter Three Open Government in China: Practice and Problems
      (pp. 92-115)
      Hanhua Zhou

      This chapter is an introduction to the emergence of open government in China, where rapidly changing attitudes and practices have attracted widespread attention in the international community over the past several years. The first part offers an overview of current practices, with emphases on village affairs, legislation, government informatization, and “The Regulations on the Freedom of Information” that are currently being formulated. The second part analyzes why those practices have arisen. The third part discusses various problems facing the practice of open government in China.

      China is applying the concept of openness in a wide range of areas, from village...

    • Chapter Four Central and Eastern Europe: Starting from Scratch
      (pp. 116-142)
      Ivan Szekely

      For decades, the countries of Central and Eastern Europe were shut off from the mainstream of democratic development. Since the end of communist or state-socialist political systems in 1989 and thereafter, the region has seen a flurry of efforts to make up for the lost years, developing new legal and institutional frameworks apace in an attempt to transform whole societies rapidly into functioning democracies. Some of the most essential efforts focus on transparency and accountability of the public sector. From a starting point of almost complete governmental opacity, the region presents in microcosm the whole array of issues that can...

    • Chapter Five The Challenging Case of Nigeria
      (pp. 143-176)
      Ayo Obe

      The idea that members of a community should be involved in informed decision making was not unknown in precolonial times, as the above quote shows. But nineteenth-century European colonizers brought a different approach—one of government secrecy—to ruling the peoples of the area that came to be known as Nigeria.

      Dismantling that apparatus and making government open is raising a number of challenges for today’s Nigerians. This chapter examines how different aspects of Nigeria’s history and political and socioeconomic makeup encapsulate several of the factors that make attaining and sustaining a viable transparency regime particularly difficult in many countries....


    • Chapter Six Making the Law Work: The Challenges of Implementation
      (pp. 179-213)
      Laura Neuman and Richard Calland

      Carlton Davis is Jamaica’s Cabinet Secretary, the country’s most senior public servant. In July 1993, on one of his first days on the job, he took a walk around his new domain and discovered a room full of papers. There were piles and piles of documents. Rooting around, coughing with the dust, he moved one particularly large tower only to discover beneath it a silver goblet. Polishing it with the sleeve of his jacket, he read to his amazement that it was a special commemorative Olympic trophy that had been awarded to the successful Jamaican athletics relay team decades before....

    • Chapter Seven Prizing Open the Profit-Making World
      (pp. 214-242)
      Richard Calland

      Transparency is now a generally accepted norm for the democratic state, understood to be essential for democracy, of significant instrumental value in enhancing efficiency in public administration, and crucial to the effective exercise of other rights.¹ There has been a huge amount of activity and progress in recent years, with government action matching civil society activism to promote the right to know. More than fifty laws creating some sort of legal right to access public information have been passed since 1995.²

      This focus on the public sector leaves out large, and growing, amounts of relevant and important information held by...

    • Chapter Eight The Struggle for Openness in the International Financial Institutions
      (pp. 243-278)
      Thomas Blanton

      One of the greatest challenges to democratic governance in the globalized world lies in the growing gap—the “democratic deficit”—between the power of the international organizations to affect human lives throughout the planet and the power of the people so affected to exercise any control over those institutions. International organizations, from the World Bank to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), have grown dramatically in power and scope since they were designed decades ago. The World Bank has more than doubled its annual commitments since 1979 and now lends in more than 100...

    • Chapter Nine Transparency and Environmental Governance
      (pp. 279-308)
      Vivek Ramkumar and Elena Petkova

      In December 1984, a factory explosion released a lethal toxic chemical among unsuspecting citizens in the north Indian city of Bhopal, killing some 2,000 people within hours and leaving several thousand others permanently handicapped. Another 15,000 died prematurely due in part to the aftereffects of their exposure. The explosion occurred in a local Union Carbide factory—a subsidiary of the American company Dow Chemicals. An investigation of the disaster revealed that the company’s management had ignored warnings about the poor conditions of the Bhopal factory’s infrastructure.¹

      The Bhopal gas tragedy provoked international condemnation.² Under the glare of public outrage, American...

    • Chapter Ten Transparency in the Security Sector
      (pp. 309-336)
      Alasdair Roberts

      The 1990s were a decade of horrible revelation. Around the world, walls of secrecy that had been built in the name of national security collapsed, giving proof of the terrible abuses done by military, intelligence, and police forces in the decades of the Cold War.

      In 1992, a dissident KGB archivist, Vasili Mitrokhin, seized the opportunity created by the collapse of the Soviet Union to smuggle out thousands of documents that revealed how Soviet leaders had wielded power over seven decades. The “Mitrokin Archive” provided evidence of Moscow’s attempt to liquidate “enemies of the people,” its disinformation campaigns against Western...

  7. Conclusion: Whither Transparency?
    (pp. 337-348)
    Ann Florini

    No single chapter can weave together all the threads spun in this book. Information flow—its causes and its consequences—is too enormous a topic for all its ramifications to fit within a few pages. Moreover, as the case studies make clear, information is a fundamental component of power and governance, inherently subject to the idiosyncracies of specific national or organizational histories and cultures. There can be no single “how-to” primer on making the best use of what transparency tools can offer for governance. Nonetheless, several broad themes cut across nations and issues. What this chapter can do, therefore, is...

  8. Contributors
    (pp. 349-352)
  9. Index
    (pp. 353-368)