Photo: Maksim Kabakou
Freedom of information, including the right to access information held by public bodies, is crucial to democracy, good governance, and good citizenship. It is also a human right, protected under international law and, in many countries, under constitutional law.
Whoever controls information controls power. At the core of democracy is the ability of the people to participate, i.e. to influence leaders and decision-makers through openly expressed public opinion. Without access to information, citizens cannot hold their governments to account. Conversely, as governments demonstrate their accountability, trust grows.
The right to access information is a powerful tool that allows the most disadvantaged groups of society to take part in initiatives that directly affect them. Lack of information blocks that participation, making them more vulnerable.
India’s Right to Information Act 2005 was one of the first to give citizens access to the records of Central and State Governments. Under the provisions of the Act, any citizen could request information from a “public authority”, which was required to respond within 30 days. However, the Act did not give the mass media the right to create informed public opinion nor did it foresee the prevalence of digital information.
In October, Bangladesh’s Right to Information Forum (RTI Forum) challenged the passage of the country’s new Digital Security Act 2018 since some of its provisions have taken precedence over Bangladesh’s Right to Information Act 2009. Apparently, the Digital Security Act not only contradicts parts of the RTI Act, but questions the government’s consistency in law making.
The RTI Forum says that the Digital Security Act could be used to place restrictions on the creation of informed public opinion, jeopardising transparency and accountability by public institutions and thereby weakening good governance.
In addition, since the independent media’s role includes acting as a watchdog of government and giving the public reliable information, in an age of digital news platforms any restriction whiffs of censorship. A law that unduly restricts freedom of expression inevitably encourages corruption, impunity, and despotism.
Digital technologies can enhance freedom of expression and opinion. It is important, therefore, to identify and to challenge restrictions that shrink civil society’s communication spaces or that hamper the kind of independent journalism that sustains democracy. As George Washington said, “If freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.”