The Right to Know: A Right, Not a Gift

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The challenge of freedom of information goes beyond the balance between the right to information and the limits of that right.

On September 28, as International Right to Know Day is marked the world over, do we in Israel have a reason to celebrate?

The concepts of freedom of information and transparency have become frequently-used terms in Israeli public discourse. The citizens demand transparency, and the politicians boast of it. Transparency has become a synonym for integrity, efficiency, and the responsibility of decision-makers to the public from whom they receive their mandate and on whose behalf they act. Still, it is clear that when these concepts become popularized, they lose their uniqueness and turn into nothing but mere catch phrases. Thus we find ourselves with much said, but little done.

Israel has made major leaps forward on the issue of transparency since the Freedom of Information Law was passed in 1998. Every governmental organization has an employee responsible for freedom of information, and almost every governmental agency must publish an annual report listing the applications it has accepted or rejected, as well as where those applications are holding.

Yet we also see at times attempts by the government to make it difficult to obtain the information. This leads to “transparency conflicts” that show how little the governmental authorities realize that the information they possess belongs to the public — just like the funds that they manage. Some authorities make every possible effort to expand the exemptions from the requirement to provide information to the public. They invoke the right to privacy and sometimes “security-related excuses,” as in the case of the expenditures of the Prime Minister’s Residence and the defense budget. They even cite administrative efficiency as a reason to exempt themselves from the requirement to search for the requested information, organize it, and make it accessible.

The budgets of the state and local authorities are open to the public, as are state tenders. So are the statistics of the Mitzav scholastic achievement tests, the cost of Culture Minister Miri Regev’s trip to the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, and the cost of constructing the Sammy Ofer Stadium in Haifa, as well as the identities of the guests at the Passover Seder held at the home of United States Ambassador Dan Shapiro. Even so, we should remember that a good part of the information, such as the list of people receiving permits to enter the Knesset building, had to be obtained through court petitions.

The challenge of freedom of information goes beyond the balance between the right to information and the limits of that right. Government-related information is often not shared with citizens because — at best — it is not made accessible, or making it accessible requires many resources. At worst, it is because it was never gathered in the first place (such as protocols that were never written down) or because the government never kept it in formats that allowed it to be made accessible (such as PDF or machine-readable format).

The challenge, then, should be how to manage government information in a way that will make it more easily accessible from the outset. The Justice Ministry’s Freedom of Information Unit, in conjunction with a team of experts from the academic world and civil society, has submitted a policy paper containing a series of recommended dictums on this subject to the Justice Ministry. I wrote the section entitled “Principles of Making Information Available to the Public.” The paper enumerates types of information about government authorities that should be publicly available even without an application and the manner in which this information should be made accessible.

The implementation of this policy paper would be a lovely present from the Justice Minister to us, Israel’s citizens, on next year’s International Right to Know Day.

Looking even further ahead, to International Right to Know Day a decade from now, our aspiration should be that all government ministries allow access not only to information about budgetary transfers of whatever kind, but also keep track of the various layers and incarnations of the route of public funds from the taxpayer’s pocket to the state treasury and from there to every single kind of expenditure, whether salaries, schools, roads, or hospitals. In this way, citizens, experts, reporters, and business owners can be involved in monitoring connections, increasing the efficiency of the use of public funds, and preventing corruption.

It takes both data and discipline to turn “information” into real knowledge that will benefit the public. But that is the true right to know — a right, not a gift.