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President Obama Recognizes the Basic Human Right to Access to Information

November 16, 2009

In a speech November 16 in China, President Obama spoke of basic human freedoms, saying “These freedoms of expression and worship, of access to information and political participation, we believe are universal rights.  They should be available to all people.”

President Obama’s recognition of access to information in his list of “universal rights” relating to expression recognizes something that is implicit, though not often stated explicitly, in US law: our cherished rights to free speech, to petition our government, and to vote, are given substance by our ability to know what our government is doing.  If we do not know what decisions were made by our leaders, then the power of our speech and votes is terribly diminished.

Internationally, there is authority for holding access to information as a basic human right.  The Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled in 2006 that there is a fundamental human right to access government information.   The European Court of Human Rights reached this same conclusion earlier this year.    There are also decisions from courts in countries such as India, South Korea, Costa Rica, and others recognizing that the right to information is implicit and necessary for free expression and political participation, and is a pillar of a free and democratic society.  Indeed, even former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld recognized, “[a]s more citizens gain access to new forms of information, to new ways of learning of the outside world, it will be that much more difficult for governments to cement their [anti-democratic] rule by holding monopolies on news and commentary.”  War of the Worlds, Wall St. J., July 18, 2005, at A12.

Bringing this issue up in China is timely.  In 2007 China promulgated a national Open Government Regulation.  Anecdotal reports suggest that the Chinese view the new regulation as helpful for spurring economic development and improving government efficiency.  Expanding the discussion to include consideration of basic human rights would be a step in the right direction as far as implementation of open government in China and around the world.

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