the Right to Information:
A Case Study From the Pacific
- Walter Rigamoto
Ombudsman of Fiji
world over are waking up to the key role the right of information
has to play in promoting good governance, participatory democracy
and ultimately development. The Asia Pacific region though has
been slow to enable what is a vital element in securing good governance,
curbing corruption, ensuring more participatory governance and
targeted development. Australia and New Zealand made laws early
on, Pakistan has recently passed an information law and India
is still struggling to bring an effective law into operation…but
Commonwealth Pacific Island member states have yet to take Freedom
of Information laws on to their lists of priority legislation.
This despite the fact that Papua New Guinea (PNG) ranks the right
to access of information as a constitutional right and Fiji’s
Constitution requires the government to pass a right to information
law as a priority. To date neither has enacted legislation.
The Office of the Ombudsman has traditionally confined itself to examining instances of misadministration within governments. However, in recent years, as human rights have increasingly been recognised as being central to effective democracy and good governance, the mandate of many Ombudsmen has been broadened to encompass a consideration of the government’s performance in protecting human rights.
throughout the world, Ombudsmen are increasingly being appointed
as protectors of the right to information. They are given monitoring
and oversight powers, and in some instances are also designated
as the independent appeal body to whom the public can direct complaints
when information has been unfairly withheld. In many of the Commonwealth
countries such as Australia, Belize, New Zealand and Trinidad
and Tobago, Ombudsmen have been granted such powers under Freedom
of Information legislation.
The significant potential of Ombudsmen as right to information advocates was recently the subject of discussion at the 22nd Australasian and Pacific Region Ombudsmen Conference held in New Zealand in February 2005. The Conference brought together Ombudsmen from 24 countries, including the Commonwealth countries of Australia, Fiji, Malaysia, Malta, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, St. Lucia,
Seychelles, Solomon Islands, South Africa, Tonga, Vanuatu, and New Zealand in a two day conference to discuss the role of the Ombudsman in the Asia Pacific region.
It is against this backdrop that the recent presentation of the Ombudsman of Fiji, Mr. Walter Rigamoto, on the value of the right to information should be
considered and commended.
CHRI met with Mr. Rigamoto following a workshop in Fiji to launch a civil society Freedom of Information Bill 2004 drafted by the Citizens Constitutional Forum to discuss the value of the right to information. Following these discussions, Mr. Rigamoto and CHRI worked to obtain a slot at the Asia Pacific Ombudsman Conference where Mr. Rigamoto could promote the right to information to his fellow Asia-Pacific Ombudsmen.
In a paper drafted
by CHRI and presented by Mr. Rigamoto at the Conference, the Fiji
Ombudsman highlighted the key ways in which Ombudsmen in the Asia-Pacific
region can maximise the effectiveness of their mandates to scrutinise
government administration by promoting the right to information.
The paper was well received and tied in with several other delegates
presentations. It is hoped that this work will build momentum
in the Asia-Pacific region around the right to information.
The Asia Pacific
CHRI’s paper on, “Right to Information: Strengthening Democracy
and Development”, presented by Fiji Ombudsman, Mr. Walter Rigamoto,
at the Asia-Pacific Ombudsman Conference 2005.
shown that legislation is only the first step in operationalising
the right. Effective implementation requires a genuine commitment
to opening up to scrutiny from all levels of government, adequate
resourcing, improved records systems and infrastructure and education
for the public and bureaucracy on their rights and obligations
under the new law. In many right to information regimes throughout
the world, Ombudsmen have often played a key role in ensuring
effective implementation of access laws.
....the right to
information has proven to be an effective antidote to corruption,
equipping parliamentarians, anti-corruption bodies (such as Ombudsmen)
and the public with a tool to breakdown the walls of secrecy that
shield corrupt officials. A legally entrenched right to access
documents held by the government (and in some cases, by private
bodies) can be used to collect hard evidence of malfeasance and
hold officials accountable. The right to information also serves
as an important deterrent - the knowledge that a decision may
be open to review by the public at a later stage can discourage
the decision-maker from acting dishonestly.
....right to information
laws constitute an extremely useful tool for ensuring greater
government transparency in practice, reducing corruption and facilitating
increased accountability. Right to information is all about opening
up the government to scrutiny and requiring it to be answerable
for its actions. This objective dovetails neatly with the mandate
of Ombudsmen - to review the administration of the government
with a view to ensuring that officials are made accountable for
encouraged to take a proactive role in promoting and implementing
the right to information, both individually in their home countries
and collectively at the regional level. As respected leaders of
the community, Ombudsmen could make a real difference in terms
of ensuring that the right to information is enjoyed by all.
strategically take a lead in transforming the general good governance
rhetoric into a practical reality for the people of the Asia-Pacific
by encouraging governments to make the enactment and implementation
of strong right to information laws a priority.
As a first step,
Asia-Pacific Ombudsmen, as a collective, are encouraged to recognise
the promotion of the right to information as a priority area for
attention. This issue could also be placed on the agenda of other
meetings of Ombudsmen, such as the upcoming Pacific Ombudsmen
meeting in August 2005. Ombudsmen could also consider more actively
promoting the right to information domestically – by raising it
with government and individual MPs, publishing articles on the
topic as a means of raising public awareness and including recommendations
regarding implementing the right to information in annual reports,
papers and speeches. In addition to pushing for the development
of a law, Ombudsman could also usefully support the review of
Standing Orders and other parliamentary procedures and rules to
ensure that they do not promote secrecy.
are not only important as strategic supporters of the general
right of the public to access information…. Ombudsmen are also
commonly given specific responsibilities under right to information
laws. In addition to a general monitoring function, some Ombudsman
have been given the job of acting as the independent appeal body
under the law, with a mandate to review decisions of public authorities
not to disclose information and recommend/demand release if appropriate.
In New Zealand, the Ombudsman operates as the independent appeal
body under the country’s right to information law.
An ombudsman has
the expertise and commitment to transparency and accountability
to tackle the difficult job of breaking down entrenched cultures
of secrecy amongst the bureaucrats responsible for the day-to-day
implementation of the law.
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