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1 June 1999

The New York Times, June 1, 1999, p. A22.


The Citizens' Right to Know

After years of talk from the Labor Party about ending Britain's culture of secrecy, Tony Blair's Government has just proposed a sadly inadequate law governing the disclosure of government information. In effect, Britain is bucking a trend that has helped citizens elsewhere learn what their governments are doing and prevent official misconduct.

In other nations, freedom of information laws have improved the policy-making process and provided a check against government abuses. The laws, most of which have been adopted in the past quarter-century, emphasize that government information belongs to the people. They accompany other transparency laws, which require Web-site publication of government data or publication of proposed laws in documents such as the Federal Register or Congressional Record. Together these laws have nourished democracy by restricting government powers to withhold important information.

Sweden approved the first freedom of information law in 1766, saying that anyone could go to a government agency and look up documents in the files. Today at least 15 countries and Hong Kong have such laws, including Hungary and several Western European and Asian countries and former British colonies. South Africa's new democratic government put freedom of information in the country's new Constitution, and is now facing the challenge of financing a law and developing ways for citizens who cannot read or write to make oral requests. Japan is the latest to pass a freedom of information law, spurred in part by its Health Ministry's slowness in dealing with H.I.V.-tainted blood products, a scandal in which at least 400 people died.

The United States passed a weak law in 1966, but it was greatly strengthened in 1974, after Watergate. It requires government agencies to publish many kinds of information, and allows anyone in the world to request the release of specific documents. The government may withhold several types of information, including material that violates privacy or damages the national security.

Mr. Blair's new bill is weaker than previous proposals that both of Britain's major parties have made, and in some areas even softens current disclosure laws. It gives public officials the right to withhold information that relates to the formulation of government policy, material they believe could prejudice the workings of government, and even any request they consider "vexatious."

No law is perfect. America's Freedom of Information Act works best for the businesses that are its biggest users and have long relationships with the agencies they query. Industries the government regulates, like pharmaceuticals, want early information about new standards and whatever the government can tell them about the competition. Some agencies with crucial information, such as the Central Intelligence Agency and the Pentagon, can take five years to respond to a disclosure request. Agencies routinely underfinance their information offices, and suffer no penalties for defying the disclosure law. They also abuse the permitted exceptions, using them to hide embarrassing behavior.

Despite these flaws, however, Americans have been able to use freedom of information laws to learn about matters as diverse as the Bay of Pigs, housing discrimination and safety problems at nuclear plants. Many government officials admit that even though they resent disclosure provisions, the laws have given citizens a fundamental tool to expose and restrain government arrogance.