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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

We are:

• 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.

Q:

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.

A:

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!


Q:

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?

A:

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.


Q:

I don't know if any of you have heard about this at all or not, but I'll describe the situation anyway.

Recently, my school district (Jefferson County, Colorado, USA) proposed a change to the AP History curriculum in our district. The proposal would change materials taught in class so that all materials, "promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free enterprise system, respect for authority and respect for individual rights." Also, "Materials should not encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law."

The full proposal can be found here: http://www.boarddocs.com/co/jeffco/Board.nsf/files/9NYRPF6DED70/$file/JW%20PROPOSAL%20Board%20Committee%20for%20Curriculum%20Review.pdf

The students of my school district have been protesting this change greatly, as we believe it will lead to mass censorship of our education. Not many materials taught in an AP class fit the criteria given. We believe, however, that it is our right to know about our history. We need help getting this information out there. Media coverage is essential, and it seems that you would all have a lot to say about this.

A few stories by local papers can be found here and here.

Since I have to ask questions:

1) Have any of you been hearing about this situation?

2) How do you feel about the possible censorship of education?

3) Would you be willing to help us spread the word about this?

A:

Yes, I've read about that. It's awful. I think the solution is greater voter engagement. The problem is that people don't turn out to vote for school board elections - even though these can be unbelievably important.

In terms of Centre for Law and Democracy's engagement - it's a little outside of our wheelhouse, since I wouldn't really classify it as a censorship or right to know issue - it's more about education, which is a separate (though crucially important) human right.


Q:

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?

A:

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.


Q:

Shailesh will be coming on in about 3 hours.

A:

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!


Q:

Not india-specific, but cryptome.org should have some stuff.

A:

Shailesh?


Q:

Is there any question that you aren't allowed to answer?

A:

Only that one.


Q:

Where would you put the United States on levels of transparency and accuracy of information (post-911)?

A:

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.


Q:

The Madras High Court has realised its folly and taken back the offending parts. The court admitted that they had not taken Section 6 (2) of the Act into account!

A:

Shailesh?


Q:

What do you guys think Ed Snowdens will be known as in 20 years from now?

A:

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.


Q:

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!

A:

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.


Q:

Yay us!

A:

Some of the newest and most dynamic right to information laws in the world are in Latin America. Brazil and Mexico in particular are doing interesting things here. Hopefully when the Dejusticia people come online they can offer their opinion as well.


Q:

"A great power comes with a great responsibility"

do you support that quote ?

if you post some negative things in the internet and after 1 minute u decide to delete,but somebody already capture your post. in your perspective who should be prosecuted ? you for posting a negative post on your social media or the person that capture your post before you delete ?

*sorry english is my second language :)

A:

I think Spiderman is doing a tough job in a difficult world and I fully support his efforts.

People are responsible for their own actions, online as well as off, but it's important to bear in mind the chilling impact that prosecutions for harmful speech can have. Governments need to exercise this sparingly, in order to preserve the open nature of the Internet.


Q:

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?

A:

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.


Q:

Hi guys, exciting to see a group like this exists! I live in Canada, a country where we like to think of ourselves as pretty forward thinking people, how do we rank on the international transparency scale? My more important question though is about getting information, specifically world news that I can trust. I don't trust the major news media organizations I used to and I would like to read impartial, accurate, up to date world news. I'm sick of blatant propaganda, biased journalism and celebrity news

Edit: main question, where can I find news as described? Pardon

A:

Canada ranks 57th on the RTI Rating (www.RTI-Rating.org). The interesting thing is that, when we first put out the RTI Rating in 2011, Canada ranked 40th. Our law hasn't changed - but all over the world countries are passing new laws or revamping their old ones, while our system creaks along.

Every journalist or source has their own bias - both institutional and personal. In my mind, the key is to understand that bias and read everything through that filter. So, for example, I find that the Economist can provide really good insight, but you have to read it knowing that they're highly pro-business and free market orientated - and that the reporting is going to reflect that.

Edited: It can also be useful to read multiple sources. So, for example, if you know about the Israel-Palestian conflict - read about the same event in Al Jazeera, Haaretz and the Jerusalem Post, and you'll get a much better understanding of what's going on than if you rely on just one.


Q:

Hey, you can make information requests on this very topic if you are in a country with these laws! Although Essex County in the UK have stated that the Ghostbusters are a better source of info on the topic (see http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-essex-29323574)

A:

The truth is out there.


Q:

What can you tell us about the Bilderberg group and their secret agenda?

A:

All I know is they keep denying my requests to join.


Q:

I am disappointed. You know as much as me:(

A:

We'll form our own Bilderberg group! With blackjack... and ...


Q:

How worried are you about the general naivety and apathy of the general public when it comes to their online privacy?

A:

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.


Q:

Today is International Right to Know Day

Why didn't I know that before today?

A:

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.


Q:

What can I do as an ordinary citizen to help keep my government accountable?

A:

File access to information requests on issues that interest you. Tell your political leaders that transparency is important to you and it should be prioritized and adequately resourced. Engage in any consultations that take place, such as over participation in the Open Government Program. Spread the word online and through social media - retweet, share, re-post publications and statements. All helpful!


Q:

Thanks for doing this AMA.

Does it ever make you feel uncomfortable that the government could possibly be monitoring what you do on the internet, including this AMA?

Do you believe it is possible that if they (corps or gov) don't like you they could do something such as call your potential employer and destroy your chances or even worse frame you for a crime?

Also, what do you think about blasphemy laws? And, what do you think about laws that restrict speech from supremacist groups?

A:

Edward Snowden has said that the NSA engages in monitoring of groups like Amnesty and Human Rights Watch - but these groups are obviously much bigger players - so I'm not sure how pervasive the surveillance interest is in this sector, and whether it would extend to smaller organizations like ours. Obviously, I think it's atrocious and a waste of public resources. I do my best to safeguard my privacy online - but if they're going to watch me there's not a lot to be done. I certainly wouldn't quit this work over something like that.

My employer is Centre for Law and Democracy - so if the Canadian government called to complain that they don't like what I'm saying I'm pretty sure they would be on my side.

In terms of blasphemy laws - really interesting question! We've had debates on those issues in the Middle East, where things get much more fiery. Check out a short summary of our position on that at: http://www.law-democracy.org/live/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/Protection-of-the-Sacred-and-Blasphemy.pdf


Q:

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.

A:

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.


Q:

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?

A:

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.


Q:

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.

A:

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.