Can governments really promote the right to know?

It will be civil society that will drive any change in our approach towards freedoms, but pressure from international bodies can be helpful

Last month, more than 70 participants from civil society groups, journalists, media organizations, and independent institutions gathered in the Serbian capital of Belgrade with the mighty aim of forming guidelines for OSCE states on combating hate speech in the media and on the Internet.

The event, formally titled “Freedom of Expression, Media Freedoms and Censorship in the OSCE Area”, was organized by the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia in cooperation with the Civic Solidarity Platform and the Embassy of the Netherlands in Belgrade.

One panel in the conference held on July 20 was entitled “The Right to Know as a public good,” and Punto 24, which is conducting a major project on Right to Information (RTI) legislation and how to use it more effectively in Turkey together with Article19 with the support of The Guardian Foundation, was also invited. In attending the conference, we were hoping to outline the major issues with the RTI legislation and the government’s reluctance on making it work, but also provide recommendations on  what can be done to better the situation.

Here is a gist of what we said in that panel: Turkey has had good RTI legislation in place since 2005. Thanks to its strong online infrastructure that allows filing RTI requests with efficacy on the websites of most public agencies, Turkey, where residents file about 2 million requests a year, has by far the highest number of information requests filed in Europe.

According to official statistics, most of these requests receive answers from the relevant bodies. However, that official claim does not match the realities of the outside world. Most of the time, the answers do not really contain the information the askers have intended to get. The truth is, they do not want to give out information to the public.

To bring down this resistance, Punto24 recommends, based on our own experience from ongoing project being conducted with Article19:

1) Organizing a core group of RTI experts and journalists, a group of dedicated individuals who really want to know all sorts of things about public agencies, and perhaps do that on an international level;
2) Making sure that citizens understand and know how to use the law;
3) Encouraging people to use the law whenever possible;
4) Educating both journalists, other potential users of the law (i.e. everyone) and public information officials to ensure higher quality in responses and finally;
5) Litigating when attempts to formally acquire information fail. Not only will you possibly get the information being held back, but also change the state’s information culture.

It is not magic, but this is a formula that works. It certainly is also a cause worth fighting for.

In the same panel, a representative of Team29 – a non-profit formed by a group of lawyers dedicated to offering legal assistance in freedom of expression violations in Russia, and a member of the Dutch group Free Press Unlimited also made presentations. The summary: the situation is very similar to Turkey in Russia, and many other parts of the world. Nothing we didn’t know about.

Following the panel, attending journalists shared their own experiences of feeling like “they’ve hit a wall” when pursuing official information requests. Some speakers were critical of international bodies; claiming that they had been denied critical information by the EU Commissioner Delegation in Macedonia.

The rapporteur on our panel, after summarizing the main bases touched upon by the three speakers said: “There is a huge gap in recommendations for the December declaration,” although all three speakers had shared recommendations about what civil society organizations can do to enhance our right to know. Perhaps in the rapporteur’s concluding remark, there was a hint of frustration that little was said about how public agencies could contribute to a solution of the issues discussed.

This is not a note of skepticism, but in general panelists in conferences that involve international bodies, be it the OSCE or the EU, rarely discuss the apparent paradox that states, and the governments that run them, are usually the main culprits in the crimes and illegalities that plague non-transparent societies such as corruption. The same applies to media freedoms.

When it comes to freedom of expression, and the public’s right to information – an inalienable part of that freedom — how can we get governments to act when usually it is their representatives or activities restricting freedom of speech? Where they are not actively jailing journalists, they are hurling threats and insults against them. Where they are not passing laws that openly ban free speech, they are pressuring the judiciary to interpret the laws in a restrictive light. Still, realistically, they are the ones empowered to make any real and long-lasting changes. They are also the ones that make up the international bodies that are supposed to pressure them. That is in the complicated nature of the business, and certainly the Belgrade conference bore that paradox.

The recommendations from the conference will be formally announced in December, by which time Punto24 will have opened a Turkish-language website on the Right to Information, fostering its network of information activists, journalists and others dedicated to protecting our right to know. All in all, it will be civil society that will drive any cultural change in our approach towards freedoms  – including the freedom to know — but pressure from bodies such as OSCE is always more than welcome.