AP Impact: Right-to-know laws often ignored

AP News
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Posted: Nov 17, 2011 8:04 AM
AP Impact: Right-to-know laws often ignored

Satbir Sharma's wife is dead. His family lives in fear in rural India. His father's left leg is shattered, leaving him on crutches for life.

Sharma's only consolation lies in a new law that gives him the right to know what will happen to the local mayor charged with his wife's murder.

He talks quietly, under his breath, because his two young sons still think their mother is sick in the hospital and will come home. He pats a tidy stack of government documents, under the watchful gaze of Hindu gods from pictures on the wall.

"At least," he says sadly, "we have the truth."

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EDITOR'S NOTE _ More than 100 countries have legislation that _ on paper _ gives citizens the right to know what is happening in their governments. The Associated Press has tested these laws worldwide for the first time. Readers are invited to submit suggestions for future freedom of information requests in any country at http://apne.ws/vgMTQ6.

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The promise is magnificent: More than 5.3 billion people in more than 100 countries now have the right _ on paper _ to know the truth about what their government is doing behind closed doors. Such laws have spread rapidly over the past decade, and when they work, they present a powerful way to engage citizens and expose corruption.

However, more than half the countries with such laws do not follow them, The Associated Press found in the first worldwide test of this promised freedom of information.

In a single week in January, AP reporters submitted questions about terrorism arrests and convictions, vetted by experts, to the European Union and the 105 countries with right-to-know laws or constitutional provisions. AP also interviewed more than 100 experts worldwide and reviewed hundreds of studies.

Among its findings:

_ Only 14 countries answered in full within their legal deadline. Another 38 countries eventually answered most questions.

_ Newer democracies were in general more responsive than some developed ones. Guatemala sent all documents in 10 days, and Turkey in seven. By comparison, Canada asked for a 200-day extension, and the FBI in the United States responded six months late with a single sheet with four dates, two words and a large blanked section.

_ More than half the countries did not release anything, and three out of 10 did not even acknowledge the request.

_ Dozens of countries adopted their laws at least in part because of financial incentives, and so are more likely to ignore or limit them. China changed its laws to join the World Trade Organization in 2001, and later expanded them beyond trade. Pakistan adopted its 2002 ordinance in return for $1.4 billion from the International Monetary Fund. Neither country responded to the AP's test.

"Having a law that's not being obeyed is almost worse than not having a law at all," says Daniel Metcalf, the leading U.S. Freedom of Information authority at the Justice Department for the past 25 years, now a law professor at American University. "The entire credibility of a government is at stake."

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India is the best example in the world of both the promise and the peril of right-to-know laws. India was one of just 14 countries to respond to the AP in full, within a month, and even gave more than was asked: A state-by-state breakdown.

India passed its right-to-know law in 2005, and last year fielded more than a million requests. Yet dozens of people have been attacked for using the law, and at least 12 killed.

The Sharma family lives in Chandrawal, a quiet farming village. Villagers say the corrupt mayor, Dharamvir Malik, has diverted their drinking water into his own fields, and has adulterated fuel at his gas stations with cheap kerosene.

The Sharmas registered a case with the police saying the mayor was stealing money, using evidence they got through India's right-to-know law. The mayor, livid with rage, filed a case saying they robbed him of $10,000 at gunpoint.

On Feb. 10, the mayor and some supporters drove to the Sharmas' house, the family says. The local officials were drunk and began screaming: "Come out. We'll give you your pensions."

Sharma's wife, Sonu, and his father Jagdish asked them to leave, the family says. The men grabbed Sonu, hit her on the head with an iron bar and ran over her with their minivan, Jagdish says. They also ran over his left leg.

Malik is now in jail, and police did not allow an interview. The family has kept up with the case through right-to-know requests. That was how they found out police were pushing for lesser charges, later overruled by the court.

Now Jagdish lives under 24-hour police guard. He absentmindedly rubs his aching left leg, which has three rods in it.

But his son still says that without the information law, the family would have little hope of justice.

"It's good for getting information so we can fight for our rights," says Satbir Sharma. "It has been a curse for us because of what happened to us personally, but it is a good thing for the common man."

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Right-to-know laws seem to work better in some new democracies than older ones, the AP test showed, because their governments can adopt what has worked elsewhere.

In Mexico, the AP filed a query through a website and got all the information requested within two months. But in the U.S., the AP had to mail requests to six branches of the Justice and Homeland Security departments. After 10 months, 18 phone calls and 40 letters from the government, the AP ended up with two spreadsheets and a piece of paper with all names blanked out.

Mexico's freedom of information law, passed in 2003, calls for all responses to be public. A record 3,012 requests are filed a week, with 2,460 responses.

With the U.S. law, passed in 1966, each agency has its own in-house freedom of information branch, and responses rarely meet the 20-day deadline. The AP is still waiting on a 10-year-old request to the U.S. State Department for information about a now-defunct Greek terror organization, which a staffer said was pending.

In 2010, U.S. agencies fully released about 55 percent of the information requested, compared with about 85 percent for Mexico. One reason: The U.S. law is older and more awkward.

"It was conceived in an era of paper-based records," says the Justice Department's Melanie Ann Pustay, the nation's highest-ranked FOIA official. "Mexico had the advantage of creating their law when we do have the Internet."

She points out that the U.S. gets more requests, close to 600,000 last year, and has recently reduced backlogs and increased the number of records made public.

In Mexico, the law is giving a voice to ordinary people.

When the tractors first came to La Parota in 2003, the engineers told Marco Antonio Suastegui, a village leader, that they were building a dam. Suastegui did not know what a dam was.

The Mexican government wanted to flood three dozen villages, including Suastegui's, to build a $1 billion dam to generate electricity. But dam opponents, with evidence gathered under the information law, sued the government for not gaining the consent of residents who owned the communal land.

In 2007, a judge stopped the construction.

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Despite the examples of success, more than half of countries with right-to-know laws ignore them.

Of the 105 countries the AP tested, 54 have yet to provide answers, 35 of those never even acknowledged receiving the request, and six refused to disclose information, citing national security.

African governments led the world for ignoring requests, with no response from 11 out of 15 countries, including Uganda.

Journalist Angelo Izama was the first person to test Uganda's law, passed in 2005. He asked for documents showing who is getting multibillion-dollar contracts to explore the massive oil reserves recently found in his country.

In response to Izama's push, Parliament demanded and got copies of contracts between oil companies and Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, but they were confidential. Museveni denied accusations of bribes from oil companies.

"Absolute rubbish," Museveni responded at a news conference. "I have never been given any money by anybody."

Since the case started three years ago, Izama has been arrested three times on increasingly serious charges, including defamation of an inspector general, and sedition and libel for comparing the president to former Filipino strongman Ferdinand Marcos. His request is still pending.

Izama says his phones are tapped, and his email is opened. He constantly looks over his shoulder.

"My aunties and my mother particularly thinks I should let this drop," he says. "It really is dangerous. But I believe freedom of information is the key to unclogging our broken system."

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Dozens of countries passed their right-to-know laws to meet conditions for agreements or funding from donors. But in practice, laws adopted for financial gain do not work as well as those passed through public pressure.

China became a full member of the WTO after promising to establish a system where people could request some public records. The government got about 100,000 requests last year, according to Weibing Xiao, a law professor who blogs about freedom of information in China. Response rates vary widely by office, from zero to 100 percent disclosure.

"I would say the Chinese government currently, while there are some problems, has become more transparent, more open," Xiao says.

However, more than half of city and provincial governments fail open-information requirements, one survey found. Chinese officials told the AP to fax a freedom of information request to find out how to use the freedom of information law. The number, dialed dozens of times, was never answered.

Even when information is available in China, it may not change anything, especially if it gets in the way of economic growth.

Professor Zhao Fengping grew up with six brothers and sisters in the rust-belt northern city of Zhengzhou, in a warren of warehouses converted into homes. But in recent years, Zhengzhou, like many other Chinese cities, has grown at a dizzying pace.

Zhao's mother, a widow in her 80s, lives both in the family home and with her children. Only by chance, on a visit back to the home last year, did Zhao and her mother learn that it was slated for demolition, to make way for an apartment complex.

In records obtained under China's open-government laws, Zhao found lapses and glaring mistakes that should have stopped the project. The approval for the project was two years old and had effectively expired. And the documents had the wrong address, listing an intersection of two streets that don't meet.

Zhao confronted officials at the Demolition and Relocation Office.

"I brought out the map and said, 'Locate this place for me.' They couldn't. I said, 'What can be done?'" recounts Zhao, who teaches public administration at Zhengzhou University. "He said it's not their problem."

She hit the same stonewall at other offices. The wrecking crews came in last November. Zhao's mother lost her home and lives with each of her children in turn.

Zhao says right-to-know laws mean nothing unless people can use the information to change policies and fight for their rights.

"I felt very sad, very hopeless," she says. "I was angry, I was furious, I was exhausted. I ran around in a big circle but didn't accomplish anything."

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The push toward freedom of information continues. This year, seven countries passed right to information laws, and 18 more have such laws under consideration.

Yet there remains a significant gap between what the laws say and what really happens.

"You pass the law, but you have 150 years of bad government practice to turn around, and you can't expect that to happen in a short period," says David Banisar, a lawyer for London-based Article 19, a nonprofit that advocates for freedom of information. "It's about moving the ball more than hitting the home run."

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What government records _ from anywhere in the world _ do you think AP reporters should request? Share your ideas with us on Facebook. We'll see if we can file a FOIA request, and your idea might even point us to a future news story. The same AP Facebook post also offers links to part 1 of AP's Freedom of Information project, exploring the number and nature of terrorism arrests and convictions. You can find it all here: http://apne.ws/vgMTQ6.

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AP staff writers who contributed to this report include: Ravi Nessman from India, Charles Hutzler from China and Adriana Gomez Licon from Mexico.