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Tag Archive: FOI

India’s FOI Anniversary Spurs Political Finance Transparency

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SaveRTI

The eighth anniversary of India’s freedom of information law, the Right to Information Act (RTI), could become an important milestone in the country’s transparency agenda. The 2005 sunshine law has already made a tremendous impact on how Indian decision makers respond to public scrutiny efforts, and this year has seen a heated public debate around the finances of political parties with the anniversary creating momentum to rethink (and maybe even redesign) the country's current political finance transparency landscape.

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OpenGov Voices: On the eve of a disappointing FOI law, Spanish civic organizations meet the challenge

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed by the guest blogger and those providing comments are theirs alone and do not reflect the opinions of the Sunlight Foundation or any employee thereof. Sunlight Foundation is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information within the guest blog.

David CaboJacobo Elosua

Victoria Anderica

This guest post is co-authored by David Cabo, Victoria Anderica and Jacobo Elosua. David and Jacobo co-founded Fundación Ciudadana Civio, which promotes an engaged citizenry through transparency and data openness in Spain. Together, they empower citizens with information technologies and data journalism to demand for transparency and accountability from government. David also created dondevanmisimpuestos.es, a website that visualizes annual budgets from Spanish public administrations. Victoria Anderica works with Access Info Europe -- a group that provides access to legislation information under the Right to Information Rating projects. She is involved in the “Legal Leaks” -- a project that trains journalists on how to use access to information laws.

Corruption is the second biggest concern for Spaniards, right after unemployment, according to quarterly polls.

From news about fraud accusations about the King of Spain’s son-in-law to judicial investigations into the ruling People’s Party to a scandal involving the Socialist Party and major trade unions over unemployment benefits fraud, citizens are losing patience and much of the media’s attention is focused on the country’s institutions.

Civio Foundation petitionIn response to these scandals, the word “transparency” is suddenly heard in every corner, in every demonstration, in every TV debate. Many more Spaniards are now aware of what some civic organizations have been denouncing for years: Spain is the only country in Europe with more than one million inhabitants who do not have access to information legislation.

The Spanish Congress is currently debating a draft law that fails the test when subjected to most basic international standards. Access to information is still not a fundamental right in line with the ruling of international courts of human rights. Currently, the law only applies to administrative information – not to the judicial and legislative branches of the state. The definition of “administrative information” excludes drafts, notes, internal reports or communications between administrative bodies. And the monitoring and appeals body is not independent because it is part of the Ministry of Public Administrations.

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When Are Public Officials’ Calls and Emails Public Records?

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Public officials are elected or appointed to do the people's business, but what happens to transparency when they do that business through private channels? There have been cases across the country revolving around public officials using private methods of communication -- like personal email accounts or cell phones -- to conduct public business. When citizens request to know more about business done by their representatives, these private communications have, at times, served as blocks to the public's right to access information. As some of these cases are being decided in courts, we've seen a wide variety of responses from state and local governments about how to handle this public records issue.

In Alaska, such a case made it all the way to that state's Supreme Court. A citizen questioned the practice of former Governor Sarah Palin using a personal email account to conduct public business. Alaska's Supreme Court decided that if the state's employees use personal email for public business, those records must be made available to the public.

At least one government body on the other side of the country reached a similar conclusion about the value of keeping public business in the public record. The Washington, D.C., council voted to require members and employees to conduct public business on their public accounts. This move came after an open government group sued the council for not sharing public business done on personal accounts. The Mayor has also directed government employees to stay away from using personal email accounts for official business.

Not all government bodies are moving toward requiring this kind of disclosure, unfortunately.

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Supreme Court FOI Decision Foolish and Shortsighted

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Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a Virginia law that generally prohibits non-Virginians from making use of its Freedom of Information law. As part of its decision in McBurney v. Young, the Court held that the Constitution's Article IV "Privileges and Immunities" clause does not extend to a non-Virginian's right to access public information on equal terms with Virginia citizens. The Constitution says that "the Citizens of each State shall be entitled to all Privileges and Immunities of Citizens in the several States," and the clause was intended to prevent a state from treating citizens of another state in a discriminatory manner. This ruling allows states like Virginia, Delaware, New Hampshire, and Tennessee to continue to make the benefits of their freedom of information laws available only to their citizens. The Court squares this logical circle by concluding that the access to public information made available under state FOI laws are not "basic to the maintenance or well-being of the Union," and thus not a "fundamental" privilege or immunity the Constitution was intended to protect. It baldly states, without evidence, that "there is no contention that the Nation's unity founded in [the absence of FOIA laws prior to the 1960s], or that it is suffering now because of the citizens-only FOIA provisions that several States have enacted."

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