Today is International Right to Know Day. We are transparency activists from Canada, Colombia, Bulgaria, India and South Africa, here to talk about openness, secrecy and your right to know. Go on – Ask Us Anything!
Sep 28th 2014 by Michael_Karanic • 26 Questions • 3138 Points
• Centre for Law and Democracy (www.law-democracy.org), an NGO based in Canada that works globally to promote transparency, freedom of expression and digital rights. Over the past year, we have carried out work in Indonesia, Myanmar, Lebanon, Afghanistan and Morocco, among many other places.
• Open Democracy Advice Centre (www.opendemocracy.org.za), a South African specialist centre for access to information and whistleblowing, committed to seeing transparency in action.
• Shailesh Gandhi, formerly of India’s Central Information Commission and one of the world’s leading right to information activists.
• Dejusticia. a Colombian NGO that whose mandate is to strengthen and defend human rights.
• Access to Information Program (www.aip-bg.org/en/), a Bulgarian non-profit which has been working for nearly 20 years to improve access to information in Bulgaria and around the world.
September 28 is International Right to Know Day, and organisations around the world use the occasion to promote discussion and engagement on secrecy and open government. Today, 100 countries around the world have access to information laws in force, but in many places these are weak or poorly implemented.
We are passionate about government transparency, and eager to answer any questions you have about your right to know.
Edited 1: Because of the timezone issues, as well as conflicting Right to Know Day events that are taking place around the world, the different activists/organisations will be logging in and out. But there will be at least one person here answering for the entire day.
Edit 2: As of 12:15 - activists from all five countries are online. Great to see so many questions - I see you've pushed us onto the front page, we're angling for the top spot now! Proof is at: twitter.com/Law_Democracy/status/516196135732785152
Edit 3: Whelp, we've been at this for a solid eight hours, and I think it's time to call it a day. Thanks to everyone for participating - I think we all really enjoyed this experience, and I hope we've piqued your interest in the right to information. Please check out our website (www.law-democracy.org), as well as those of our partners above, and you can also find us on Twitter or on Facebook. Happy Right to Know Day Reddit - let's do this again next year.
What can I do to help stop the Canadian government from muzzling our scientists? They have said that scientists can't talk about a subject until they've published a journal of it, meanwhile our politicians with zero expertise are allowed to spout any BS that will push their personal agendas.
Great question! The government of Canada is doing a consultation on open government, and this issue has come up. It's technically past the deadline, but you can tell them you want scientists to be able to speak freely at: http://data.gc.ca/eng/Open_Science.
Make your voice heard!
What is your opinion on the new national security laws in Australia that has been put in place due to fear of terrorist attacks from ISIS extremists. Do you think that these laws are a step back for transparency and democracy?
The new laws are absolutely atrocious. Over the past year, we've seen global outrage about the abuses carried out by western intelligence agencies, including Australia's. The idea that the government there is doubling down, rather than seeking to correct these problems, is very troubling indeed.
More specifically - any attempt to crack down on whistleblowers, and to make sure there are no future Snowdens - presents a very real threat to our mechanisms of accountability. Whistleblowing is a vital check on government abuses, and democratic states have a responsibility to protect, rather than prosecute, people who take personal risks to bring abusive behaviour to light.
Which countries (if any) do you feel currently have the best records in terms of access to information and transparency? Are there existing versions of FoI legislation you think should become the gold standard, or is it all generally flawed?
It's not who you would expect! CLD actually has done a rating of the different RTI systems in the world, available at www.RTI-Rating.org, which shows that the best laws are from Serbia, Slovenia and India. India in particular is worth checking out, due to the transformative impact that law has had on the relationship between individuals and their governments.
All laws are flawed in some ways, but there are "gold standards" in the form of model legislation. The OAS has a model law on access to information here: http://www.oas.org/dil/access_to_information_model_law.htm, and there's another good one by Article 19, an NGO, here: http://www.article19.org/data/files/medialibrary/1796/model-freedom-of-information-law.pdf.
Hi - Shailesh has been delayed and will join us in a couple of hours - but I'm sure he'll have an interesting answer on this one!
Is there any question that you aren't allowed to answer?
Only that one.
Where would you put the United States on levels of transparency and accuracy of information (post-911)?
The RTI Rating puts the US access system 47th in the world: http://rti-rating.org/country_data.php. In terms of accuracy - it's tough to say.
What do you guys think Ed Snowdens will be known as in 20 years from now?
I think he's already recognized as a hero and a whistleblower in most of the world, and that's how history will remember him. It's important to note that, a year since the revelations, the sky hasn't fallen. We haven't seen this explosion in terrorism or violence as a result of his leaks - so a lot of the doomsday predictions about the harm he has done to our national security, and the necessity of these programmes to keep us safe, seems overblown.
Hi! Thank you for taking the time to do this AMA. What do you believe is the most damaging aspect about having a government that is not transparent about the way they act and operate? Continuing, how can we help in your mission? Thanks!
Without openness, there's no effective check on what governments can do. Secrecy breeds all kinds of abuses, including corruption and human rights abuses but also maladministration - if there's nobody watching what you do, there's no incentive to do your job efficiently.
Edited for a better answer on how to help: You could get involved with local NGOs that are working to promote human rights in your area. We also appreciate any help in spreading the word and raising awareness: via twitter, or by distributing our statements and publications.
I had to take my friend to the airport and now I cant sleep. It's 6am here right now. I hate getting up early. I see that you only have a few questions though. So tell me, if you want:
How does the US compare to other countries in terms of transparency? Would you care to comment on its position? Do you have plans/have you in the past worked on getting things more transparent here?
Sorry you can't sleep - but it was very nice of you to drive your friend to the airport so early.
The RTI Rating (www.RTI-Rating.org) puts the US' Freedom of Information Act 47th in the world. It's badly outdated, and in need of an overhaul. Probably one of the biggest problems is the lack of an information commissioner, or some other independent oversight body, which forces people into the court system if they want to appeal against a refusal.
How worried are you about the general naivety and apathy of the general public when it comes to their online privacy?
Apathy is always a major challenge when it comes to human rights issues in the developed world. Often people don't see a critical or immediate threat, so they tune out.
This is actually where awareness raising, derided as "slacktivism", can actually be really useful if it demonstrates interest or engagement on an issue. If people were more vigilant about online privacy, and complained loudly or stopped using services with shoddy policies on this issue, the landscape would change very quickly.
Today is International Right to Know Day
Why didn't I know that before today?
Read the rules. We are under no obligation to tell you you have a right to know before today.
Seriously though - around the world we try our best to promote the right to information, and actually awareness is increasing pretty dramatically. Twenty years ago there were only 17 countries with right to information legislation on the books - now there are one hundred. That wouldn't happen if there wasn't demand for it. It can be tough to get the word out, but conversations like this help people recognize the importance of transparency, and demand more from their governments.
Why do you think so many people (especially in the US and Europe) care so little about being constantly monitored? I don't get it.
Because there isn't really a direct understanding of it, I would imagine. They're sitting alone at their computer, in their house or apartment, and it still feels like it's a private medium, so they figure there's no problem even if, in reality, they're being watched and monitored at all times.
I'm pretty sure this guy lives there: http://siliconsasquatch.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/Backlog-Ancient-Destiny-Aliens.jpg
To your knowledge, have there been any cases of a group taking the Canadian government to court over spying on Canadians? More specifically, for violating the rights of Canadians under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms?
Yes. Two excellent groups, BCCLA and Open Media, are suing CSEC over that. Not sure what the status of the case is, but you can read about it at: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/canadian-spy-agency-sued-for-allegedly-violating-charter-1.2158884.
What do you say to someone who wants to make government more accountable, but can't draw attention to themselves? I have no desire to be any sort of martyr but would like to help.
Well - I'm not sure where you're coming from, but in most of the developed world, and even much of the developing world, you don't really need to worry about becoming a "martyr" if you get engaged.
So - while the Internet can be great for facilitating anonymous activism, I'd urge you not to shy away from engaging more directly.