“Free to those that can afford it, very expensive to those that can’t”* Creating the Luxury of Freedom of Information

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The underpinning values in freedom of information are openness and transparency. They can be regarded separately as openness represents an individuals right to access information and transparency representing a persons ability to scrutinize the decision making process. The need for adequate freedom of information provisions was summed up the Australian Senate Standing Committee on Legislation and Constitutional Affairs on the Freedom of Information Bill 1978.

The accountability of the government to the electorate, and indeed to each individual elector, is the corner-stone of democracy, and unless people are provided with sufficient information accountability disappears… We believe that if people are adequately informed, and have access to information, this in turn will lead to an increasing level of public participation in the processes of policy making and government itself[1].

The initial Freedom of Information Act in 1997 was hailed as a welcome move towards increasing the accountability and transparency of government business in Ireland. However the steps that were taken in the 2003 amendment were retrograde to say the least. One of the main aims of the current Programme for Government was to reverse this criticised change.

Yet the proposed amendments to the 2013 Bill have done little to reverse the main criticisms of the 2003 Act. The changes to the fee regime will create a prohibitive fee structure which will undermine the very philosophy that freedom of information legislation is enacted for. The 2003 Act was heavily criticised for the manner in which amendments were made[2].  However, this means of amendment has continued with the redraft of the current Freedom of Information Bill 2013 with the amendments being put forward so late in the day and well after the pre-legislative scrutiny on the issue. However, the most alarming aspect of the fees issue is the illustration of the mind-set behind freedom of information legislation in Ireland. Real reform of Freedom of Information would be to place all information that is deemed in the public interest in the public domain instead of waiting for someone to ask the right questions.

The overriding philosophy of such legislation is to open up the institutions of government to the scrutiny of the public in the public interest. If anything the legislation, to be truly reforming, should place a duty on public bodies to make public interest information openly accessible and not just accessible due to a journalist or campaigner asking right questions in a request. Real reform of Freedom of Information would be to place all information that is deemed in the public interest in the public domain instead of waiting for someone to ask the right questions.

This idea has already been flagged by the previous information commission, Ms. Emily O’Reilly in her 2010 report

In the current climate, with resource pressures on public bodies, I would urge them to adopt a mindset, when dealing with FOI requests, of making more information publicly available, so as to reduce the resources required by them in the processing of FOI requests[3]

Increasing fees by stealth will only serve to chill the amount of accessible information to the public. Openness and transparency is not a luxury for those that can afford to ask the right questions but a democratic right to access information as per the European Convention on Human Rights and for citizens to act in their policy role under Article 6.1 and to criticise government policy as is placed in Article 40.6.1(i).

* Quote from Whitnail and I (1987)


[1] The Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia, ‘Freedom of Information: Report by the Senate Standing Committee on Legislation and Constitutional Affairs on the Freedom of Information Bill 1978, and aspects of the Archives Bill 1978 (Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra, 1979)  pp 21-2

[2] “The irony was that the freedom of information act, the epitome of openness and transparency in government, was being curtailed by government in process shrouded in secrecy.” Marie McGonagle, Media Law, (2nd Edition, Thomson Roundhall, 2003) p. 359

[3] Report of the Information Commissioner 2010 p 43

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One thought on ““Free to those that can afford it, very expensive to those that can’t”* Creating the Luxury of Freedom of Information

  1. This will have the opposite effect of what is cynically intended. When people have access to information they tend to make an objective decision based on the facts or at least based on as many of the facts that have not been redacted. When they are ‘strategically’ priced out of the FOI market by a cynical ploy, they automatically assume the worst and rightly so.

    This maneuver, the opposite, of what was promised in the program for government and election campaign, accelerates the distrust citizens have for politicians and the institutions of the state. It is an example of the state undermining the state. Maybe, as an unintended consequence, this will work out for the better, because instead of ‘not’ asking for “information” citizens will skip that step, more and more and jump straight to….. ‘we want resignations, we want reform’. ‘Oh! yes! And, one more thing, we want it now!’ No more game strategies.

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