Yes! The right of access to information is a fundamental, universal human right.
And it’s not just us saying this: there are plenty of decisions by national and international courts confirming that access to information is a human right. In Europe 40 of the 47 member of the Council of Europe now have specific access to information laws (those that don’t are: Andorra, Cyprus, Malta, Monaco, Luxembourg, San Marino, and Spain), and a total of 25 European constitutions recognise some kind of right of access to official documents or information and a total of 35 include the right either of access to information or “freedom of information”.
The European Union has a set of rules on access to EU documents and with the new EU’s Treaty of Lisbon also establishes a right of access to EU documents. In 2009 the European Court of Human Rights also recognised that there is a fundamental right of access to information held by public bodies protected by Article 10 of the Convention, which is the article on freedom of expression:
Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers.
The Court said that the right to information is especially protected when these bodies are the only ones who hold this information (an “information monopoly”) and when the information is needed by media or by civil society organisations who are using the information to facilitate public debate and to hold governments accountable. For more information about these cases see Section IV.
The European Court rulings echoed a 2006 decision by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights which confirmed that the American Human Rights Convention (Article 13) protects the “right of all individuals to request access to State-held information …” and that there is a “right of the individual to receive such information and the positive obligation of the State to provide it ...”
This is exciting news for journalists: it is now clearly established that the right to freedom of expression, which includes the right to media freedom, is directly linked to the right of access to information held by public bodies. This means that any journalist who is requesting information from a public body has a right to that information linked to international protection for media freedom. It does not mean that journalists have a stronger right than other citizens – freedom of expression is a right of everyone, of course – but it does make a very strong legal case when you need to go to court to defend any refusals to provide you with information.
This right to information is also recognized in many international and regional treaties and conventions on human rights. In the majority of the cases it is recognized within the right to freedom of expression, which includes the right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas.
Constitutions that guarantee the right to know: In addition, many countries have recognized the right to information or access to administrative documents in their constitutions, either within the right to freedom of expression or separately as a stand-alone right of access to documents or access to information. At least 51 countries around the world have Constitutions which make this clear.
Have you ever read your country’s constitution?
If you want to know more, visit the right2info website.
There’s lots of legal stuff there and you can find extracts from Constitutions from around the world.
Examples of the provisions on access to information in some European constitutions can be found in Box A.
TIP! Go to www.Right2INFO.org to check the language of your national constitution and see whether if gives you a right of access to information, or at least mentions “freedom of information” or “freedom of expression”. Knowing this can be useful if you are trying to persuade a public official that you know your rights and are ready to defend them in order to get the information you are looking for.