AP Impact: Right-to-know laws often ignored
Satbir Sharma's wife is dead. His family lives in fear. His father's left leg is shattered, leaving him on crutches for life.
Sharma's only hope lies in a new law that gives him the right to know what is happening in the investigation of his wife's death. Most of all, he wants to know what will happen to the village mayor, now in jail on murder charges.
He talks quietly, under his breath, because his two young sons still think their mother is sick in the hospital and will come home. He pats a tidy stack of government documents perched on a table, under the gaze of Hindu gods from pictures on the wall.
"At least," he says sadly, "we have the truth."
EDITOR'S NOTE — More than 100 countries have legislation that — on paper — gives citizens the right to know what is happening in their governments. The Associated Press has tested these laws worldwide for the first time. Readers are invited to submit suggestions for future freedom of information requests in any country at https://www.facebook.com/APNews as of Nov. 17.
The promise is magnificent: More than 5.3 billion people in more than 100 countries now have the right — on paper — to know the truth about what their government is doing behind closed doors. Such laws have spread rapidly over the past decade, and when they work, they present a powerful way to engage citizens and expose corruption.
However, more than half the countries with such laws do not follow them, The Associated Press found in the first worldwide test of this promised freedom of information. And even when some countries do follow the law, the information unearthed can be at best useless and at worst deadly.
Right-to-know laws reflect a basic belief that information is power and belongs to the public. In a single week in January, AP reporters tested this premise by submitting questions about terrorism arrests and convictions, vetted by experts, to the European Union and the 105 countries with right-to-know laws or constitutional provisions.
AP also interviewed more than 100 experts worldwide and reviewed hundreds of studies.
Among its findings:
— Only 14 countries answered in full within their legal deadline. Another 38 countries eventually answered most questions, at least providing data.
— Newer democracies were in general more responsive than some developed ones. Guatemala confirmed the AP request in 72 hours, and sent all documents in 10 days. Turkey sent spreadsheets and data within seven days. Mexico posted responses on the Web. By comparison, Canada asked for a 200-day extension. The FBI in the United States responded six months late with a single sheet with four dates, two words and a large section blanked. Austria never responded at all.
— More than half the countries did not release anything, and three out of 10 did not even acknowledge the request. African governments led the world for ignoring requests, with no response whatsoever from 11 out of 15 countries.
— Dozens of countries adopted their laws at least in part because of financial incentives, and so are more likely to ignore them or limit their impact. China changed its access-to-information rules as a condition to joining the World Trade Organization in 2001, to boost the economy by as much as 10 percent. Beijing has since expanded the rules beyond trade matters. Pakistan adopted its 2002 ordinance in return for $1.4 billion in aid from the International Monetary Fund. Neither country responded to the AP's test.
"Having a law that's not being obeyed is almost worse than not having a law at all," says Daniel Metcalf, the leading U.S. Freedom of Information authority at the Justice Department for the past 25 years, now a law professor at American University. "The entire credibility of a government is at stake."
India is the best example in the world of both the promise and the peril of right-to-know laws.
India was one of just 14 countries that replied to the AP's request in full and on time. Authorities responded within their legal deadline of a month, and even gave more than was asked: A state-by-state breakdown.
Indians filed about 24,400 right-to-know requests in 2006, the year after the country's information law passed. Last year, the government fielded more than a million and said it responded to most.
India now boasts of at least a dozen blogs dedicated exclusively to right to information issues. Requests have already revealed scandals such as unethical drug trials, shady business deals and illegal phone taps by government officials.
"Right to Information is a fundamental human right," says Srinivas Madhav at the Centre for Good Governance in Hyderabad. "Right to Information has become a friend in need, making life easier and honorable for common people."
Yet dozens of people in India have been attacked and beaten for using the law, and at least 12 have been killed.
Sharma sits on the bed, quietly sweating in the thick 113-degree heat. His father, Jagdish Chandra Sharma, absentmindedly rubs his aching left leg, which was crushed and now has three rods in it. He wipes a tear away from his eye.
The Sharma family lives in Chandrawal, a quiet farming village of about 2,100 people where the mayor, Dharamvir Malik, is notoriously corrupt, according to villagers.
They say he cut a water pipe flowing across his fields and drained drinking water into his crops. He then sent a water truck to the village and charged residents to fill up from it. And he adulterated fuel at the gas stations he owns with cheap kerosene.
When the Sharmas suspected him of stealing pension money, they filed for documents under India's right-to-know law. They used the information to register a corruption case with the police. The mayor, livid with rage, then filed a case against them, saying they had robbed him of $10,000 at gunpoint.
On the evening of Feb. 10, the mayor and some supporters drove to the family home in a minivan, the family says. They were drunk and began screaming: "Come out. We'll give you your pensions."
Sharma's wife, Sonu, and his father Jagdish came out to ask them to leave, the family says.
The men grabbed Sonu, tried to pull her into the car and hit her on the head with an iron bar, Jagdish recounts. When she collapsed, they ran over her with the minivan, he says. They also ran over his left leg.
Malik is now in jail, and police did not allow an interview.
Over the past eight months, the only information the family has received on the case has come from a flurry of right-to-know requests.
That was how they found out police were pushing for lesser charges, saying Sonu Sharma was killed after Malik tried to drive away from a scuffle between the two families. The court overruled the police and charged Malik with murder.
The documents also showed that Malik had five registered guns. The Sharmas' application for a gun permit of their own was rejected, and they have filed a right-to-know request to find out why.
Now Jagdish lives under 24-hour police guard. But his son is still enthusiastic about India's information law, and says without it the family would have little hope of justice.
"It's good for getting information so we can fight for our rights," says Satbir Sharma. "It has been a curse for us because of what happened to us personally, but it is a good thing for the common man."
Right-to-know laws can work particularly well in newer democracies, because their governments can adopt what has worked elsewhere and discard what hasn't. In the AP test, new democracies in general responded faster and better than more established ones.
Mexico, for example, gave the AP all the information requested within two months in response to a query filed through a single website. But in the U.S., the AP had to mail letters to six branches of the Justice and Homeland Security departments, email the FBI and follow up with 18 telephone calls. In return came 40 pieces of mail, with useful information only in two spreadsheets, and even then with names blanked out.
Mexico's freedom of information law is often cited as a model. Requests can be anonymous. All responses are made public. The system acknowledges the request immediately, and full answers typically arrive within a month.
Immediately after the law took effect in 2003, Mexico logged an average of 926 requests and 823 responses a week. Those numbers are now up to a record 3,012 requests and 2,460 responses.
The U.S. passed its freedom of information law in 1966. Each agency in the U.S. has its own in-house freedom of information branch, which creates bureaucracy. Responses rarely meet the 20-day deadline, and can take years.
The AP is still waiting on a 10-year-old request to the U.S. State Department for information about a now-defunct Greek terror organization. At the latest check, a staffer said: "The information was sent to a senior reviewer."
About one in three requests in the U.S. is partially filled. Sections are often blanked out. In 2010, U.S. agencies fully released about 55 percent of the information requested, compared with about 85 percent for Mexico.
The U.S. law is showing its age.
"It was conceived in an era of paper-based records," says the Justice Department's Melanie Ann Pustay, the nation's highest-ranked FOIA official. "Mexico had the advantage of creating their law when we do have the Internet."
She points out that the U.S. gets more requests, with close to 600,000 last year, and has has recently reduced backlogs and increased the number of records made public.
In Mexico, the law is giving a voice to ordinary people.
When the tractors first came to La Parota in 2003, the engineers told Marco Antonio Suastegui, a village leader, that they were building a dam. Suastegui did not know what a dam was.
The Mexican government wanted to flood out three dozen villages, including Suastegui's, tucked along lagoons and down winding muddy roads beyond the luxury resorts of Acapulco. The plan was to build a $1 billion dam to generate 1,500 gigawatt hours of electricity a year, enough to power eastern Mexico.
The villagers were furious. "Blood was going to flow," Suastegui says.
But the same year, Mexico's freedom of information law took effect. Along with holding marches and protests, dam opponents gathered evidence from documents obtained under the information law.
Villagers then sued the government for granting water rights without the consent of residents who owned the communal land. In 2007, a judge stopped construction.
About 300 dam opponents gathered in a town square on a recent afternoon to celebrate their success with music, dance, prayers and hot beans and tortillas. Their victory would not have been possible, they say, without the documents.
Despite the examples of success, more than half of countries with right-to-know laws ignore them.
Of the 105 countries the AP tested, 54 have yet to provide answers, 35 never acknowledged receiving the request, and six refused to disclose information, citing national security. In Kenya, a government spokesman denied receiving a hand-delivered letter. In Jordan, four requests were rejected outright, and several more are pending.
The law in Uganda, where the government never responded, goes one step further. Critics say it further restricts access to records if they are said to damage state security or infringe on privacy. Ugandans must also pay a fee of about 20,000 shillings, or $8, typically a week's wages, for a request.
About 200 requests have been filed since the law passed in 2005, according to a survey by a Ugandan human rights group. Seven out of 10 petitioners never heard back from the government, and those who did were often denied the records.
Journalist Angelo Izama was the first person to test Uganda's law, paying an attorney $2,500 to file a right-to-know request. He asked for documents showing who is getting multibillion-dollar contracts to explore and exploit the massive oil reserves recently found in his country.
"This oil is a national asset," Izama says. "It belongs to the people of Uganda, most of whom don't have electricity, cook on firewood, live in abject poverty. ... Ugandans have a right, under their freedom of information law, to know what deals are being made with Western and Chinese oil companies."
In response to Izama's push, Parliament demanded and got copies of contracts between oil companies and Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, but they were confidential. Adding to the fury, WikiLeaks released cables alleging that Museveni accepted bribes from oil companies.
"Absolute rubbish," Museveni responded at a news conference. "I have never been given any money by anybody."
Since the case started three years ago, Izama has since been arrested three times, on increasingly serious charges.
He went to court after three months to ask a magistrate to order that the documents be turned over to him, but was arrested the next day for defaming an inspector general on the radio.
On the morning he was supposed to be arguing for his request, Izama was in a different courtroom 10 miles away. He had just been charged with sedition and libel for comparing the president to former Filipino strongman Ferdinand Marcos.
"I was going crazy, texting everyone, trying to get out," he says.
Finally, after paying $1,000 bail, he dashed to the other court. But the judge had ruled against him, saying he had failed to show that disclosure of the oil contracts would be "for the benefit of the public interest." The judge cited Iran and Indonesia as oil-rich countries that do not divulge such information.
This month Izama was supposed to have a hearing on his request, but the judge is the same former inspector general who once accused him of defamation, and it's been delayed until March.
Even if he gets his records, it's unclear what condition they will be in. "No temperature, humidity or pest control exist," said a study of government personnel records in Uganda, "so paper is rotting, metal is rusting and there are layers of insects on or in files."
Izama says his phones are tapped, and his email is opened. He constantly looks over his shoulder.
"My aunties and my mother particularly thinks I should let this drop," he says. "It really is dangerous. But I believe freedom of information is the key to unclogging our broken system."
Dozens of countries passed their right-to-know laws to meet conditions for agreements or funding from donors. The United States alone spends about $50 million a year in foreign aid to promote freedom of information and government transparency. But in practice, laws adopted for financial gain do not work as well as those adopted in response to public pressure.
China became a full member of the WTO after promising to establish a system where people could make requests for some public records, in an apparent change of course for one of the world's most secretive governments.
In 2008, the Chinese government reported receiving close to 89,000 requests, resulting in the release of more than 10 million documents. There were about 100,000 requests last year, according to Weibing Xiao, who teaches at Shanghai University's School of Economic Law and maintains a blog about freedom of information in China.
"I would say the Chinese government currently, while there are some problems, has become more transparent, more open," Xiao says.
Response rates vary widely by office, from zero to 100 percent disclosure. In a landmark case last year, a Chinese businessman forced the city of Guangzhou to make its budget public. And Chinese authorities responded in August to criticism of secrecy with a pledge to become more open.
However, more than half of China's city and provincial governments fail open-information requirements, one survey found.
China never provided the information requested by the AP. Authorities told the AP to fax a freedom of information request to find out how to use the freedom of information law. The number, dialed dozens of times, was never answered.
Even when information is available in China, it may not change anything, especially if it gets in the way of economic growth and other government priorities.
Professor Zhao Fengping grew up in a warren of warehouses in the rust-belt city of Zhengzhou that had been converted into homes. The houses, while dark, had yards for Zhao, her six brothers and sisters and neighborhood children to play in.
"We had deep feelings about it," says Zhao, who teaches public administration at Zhengzhou University. "Over the long run, my neighbors and I were like partners who had grown up together."
But Zhengzhou, in north central China, has grown at a dizzying pace, throwing up a new district full of empty buildings that the Chinese derisively call the country's biggest "ghost city." Zhengzhou and other local governments are furiously plowing under defunct factories, old neighborhoods and rural fringes to build high-rises, roads and industrial parks.
Zhao's mother, a widow in her 80s, lives in the family home, and sometimes with her children. Only by chance, on a visit back to the home last year, did Zhao and her mother learn that it was slated for demolition, to make way for an apartment complex.
Then began weeks of visits to city offices and phone calls to many more.
In records obtained under China's open-government initiatives, Zhao found lapses and glaring mistakes that should have stopped the project. An office that oversaw the reconstruction of central Zhengzhou was not listed in government directories. The approval for the project was two years old and had effectively expired. And the documents had the wrong address, listing an intersection of two streets that don't meet.
Zhao confronted officials at the Demolition and Relocation Office.
"I brought out the map and said, 'Locate this place for me.' They couldn't. I said, 'What can be done?'" Zhao recounts. "He said it's not their problem."
She hit the same stonewall at other offices. Meanwhile, the government and the company in charge of demolition pressured her family to give up.
The wrecking crews came last November. Zhao's mother, a widow in her 80s, lost her home and now lives with each of her children in turn.
The process plunged Zhao into depression for weeks. She says right-to-know laws mean nothing without a more open political system, where people can use the information to change policies and fight for their rights.
"I felt very sad, very hopeless," she says. "I wouldn't do this again, because I now know where it leads. ... I was angry, I was furious, I was exhausted. I ran around in a big circle but didn't accomplish anything."
The push toward freedom of information continues. This year, seven countries passed right to information laws, and 18 more have such laws under consideration.
Yet there remains a significant gap between what the laws say and what really happens.
"You pass the law, but you have 150 years of bad government practice to turn around, and you can't expect that to happen in a short period," says David Banisar, senior legal counsel for London-based Article 19, a nonprofit that advocates for freedom of information. "It's about moving the ball more than hitting the home run."
AP staff writers who contributed to this report include: Ravi Nessman from India, Charles Hutzler from China and Adriana Gomez Licon from Mexico.