Tuesday 29 May 2012

Is Freedom of Information a Human Right?

If I ask the government a question do I have the right to get an answer?

I said this week I’d write about personal liberty, but last week’s article on freedom of expression brought several queries about the right to have access to government information.  And with DfID Secretary of State Andrew Mitchell’s comments on the subject, when interviewed this week by Simon Pipe, it seems a good topic to cover immediately.

In another break from the usual I haven’t started with a quote from our Constitution.  Freedom of Information is not a right protected by the Constitution of St Helena, or by our law.

So if it is not in the constitution is it a human right?

The answer, according to the United Nations, is yes.

In its very first session in 1946, the United Nations General Assembly adopted Resolution 59(I), stating:

Freedom of information is a fundamental human right and ... the touchstone of all the freedoms to which the United Nations is consecrated.

Last year by the United Nations' Human Rights Committee reconfirmed this, saying:

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights embraces a right of access to information held by public bodies. Such information includes records held by a public body, regardless of the form in which the information is stored, its source and the date of production. ... the right of access to information includes a right whereby the media has access to information on public affairs  and the right of the general public to receive media output.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights has been extended to St Helena so that means it covers us.

Freedom of information has been a right in the UK since 2000 and has been spread to over 90 countries around the world since Sweden's Freedom of the Press Act of 1766.  Yet it does not exist here, or in any of the UK’s Overseas Territories.

By the way, in case anyone is getting worried, Freedom of Information covers only government information, not personal details.  You private life remains that.  Only government information is made accessible.

So why do we not have protection here?

According to our Attorney General, when asked by the [HRCBC], the UK Freedom of Information Act 2000 has been dis-applied here because it is too complicated and unmanageable for a small island.  Instead the St Helena Government “works within the spirit of the UK legislation”.

He’s right that to implement the full UK legislation would require many committees and levels of bureaucracy, and probably would be unworkable here, but that doesn’t alter our right to the information or our need for that right to be formalised in our law.  Some other way must be found.  The view of the HRCBC is that this needs to be addressed.

So, to answer the original question, yes, according to the UN you should have a right to access government information, but our law and Constitution do not (yet) actually implement that right.

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