Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative
CHRI Home   Contact Us
Volume 11 Number 4
New Delhi, Winter 2004

Right to Information Legislation
The Key to Reducing Corruption and Enhancing Economic Growth

Charmaine Rodrigues & Peter Slough
Access to Information Programme, CHRI

"Corruption distorts the efficient allocation of resources and impacts negatively on sustainable economical growth, income equality and poverty reduction," remarked Michael Potts, the Australian High Commissioner to Papua New Guinea (PNG). While PNG strives to move development forward and to stabilise its fragile democratic institutions, it is a sad but a widely known fact that corruption is diverting much-needed public funds away from important development initiatives.

PNG should commit to entrenching the right to access information from government, and private bodies in certain situations, as a key anti-corruption strategy. For a relatively small cost and investment of time at the outset, entrenchment of an effective access to information regime will immediately show returns.

Currently, corruption is allowed to flourish because politicians and bureaucrats alike are aware that their actions and decisions are not open to public scrutiny. Money is allegedly spent on economic and developmental growth activities, but the public has no way of checking what is actually being done. Are roads really being properly built and maintained? Is sufficient money really being spent on schools and health services?

The right to information gives the public a practical tool, which can be used to oversee government decision-making and expenditure. It opens up the government to the public, thereby increasing transparency and reducing corruption. Would government officials be as willing - or even as able - to regularly act against the public interest, and in their own interest, if they knew that their decisions could be examined by citizens and publicised?

It is by no coincidence that countries perceived to have the most corrupt governments also have the lowest levels of development or that countries with access to information laws are also perceived to be the least corrupt. In 2003, of the ten countries scoring best on Transparency International's Annual Corruption Perceptions Index, no fewer than nine had effective legislation enabling the public to access government information. Of the ten countries perceived to be the worst in terms of corruption, not even one had a functioning Access to Information regime.

Providing people with a simple legal right to demand information from the government will also empower them to meaningfully engage in their own development. The right to information is necessary to ensure development activities are appropriate and sustainable, thus giving them the best chance for success.

As Kofi Annan, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, has observed: "The great democratising power of information has given us all the chance to effect change and alleviate poverty in ways we cannot even imagine…With information on our side, with knowledge a potential for all, the path to poverty can be reversed."

Entrenching the right to information is also good for the economy - open governance, with its associated anti-corruption focus, makes countries more attractive to foreign investors. At the high policy end, parliamentarians and the public can exercise their right to access information to obtain documents on trade and economic policy. Investors can also rely on the continual availability of timely and accurate information about government policies, the operation of regulatory authorities and financial institutions and the criteria used to award tenders, provide licences and give credit. At the other end of the spectrum, people can use their right to access information regarding, for example, taxation, wages and government spending.

Though PNG does not yet have freedom of information legislation, Article 51 of the Constitution explicitly recognises the right of reasonable access to official documents, subject only to the need for such secrecy as is reasonably justifiable in a democratic society.

A constitutional provision is however not enough. People cannot be expected to undertake litigation in the courts every time they require a simple piece of information from their government. Instead, legislation should be put in place, which clearly sets out the rights of the public to access information and the duties on officials to give information.

It is disappointing that the Government has not yet provided the public with access to the huge amounts of valuable information that it produces as part of the routine discharge of its duties. Information does not belong to officials, to be controlled and hoarded. Government information belongs to the public - it is created with public money by public servants paid by the public treasury. It is a national resource.

Any right to information regime that is developed in PNG should be based on the international best practice principle of maximum disclosure. In this era of outsourcing of public services to private companies, even documents held by private bodies should be included under law, where information affects the right of citizens. Release of documents should be the norm with the exception made for matters that go against the public interest. Public interest should be narrowly defined though - to protect things like national security or personal privacy. This simply cannot be used to protect government from embarrassment or to hide corruption.

Corruption will continue to undermine economic and social development if it is not identified as a matter of priority. The Government has repeatedly stated its commitment to pursuing anti-corruption strategies - the right to information provides one very tangible mechanism which the Government can implement for relevant little cost but major benefits. At the very least, this will have long-term governance, development and economic benefits.

The Corruption Perceptions Index
is a poll reflecting the perceptions of business people and country analysts, both resident and non-resident. This year's Corruption Perceptions Index draws on 18 surveys provided to Transparency International between 2002 and 2004, conducted by 12 independent institutions. The range is between one and ten, with a score less than two perceived to be rampant corruption, and ten being open and transparent government.

PNG achieved a score of 2.6 in the Index and were ranked 102 out of 150 countries. The entrenchment of an effective, comprehensive RTI regime would enable their government to become more open and transparent and thus strike out corruption. Supporting this statement is the fact that in the top ten perceived countries in the index, nine have effective RTI laws.

Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index 2004
The Top ranked countries

Country Rank


CPI Score 2004

3. + 4.

New Zealand
Denmark + Iceland


The Bottom ranked countries

Country Rank


CPI Score 2004

140. + 141.
142. + 143.
145. + 146.

Azerbaijan + Paraguay
Chad + Myanmar
Bangladesh + Haiti



CHRI Newsletter, Winter 2004

Editors: Vaishali Mishra & Clare Doube, CHRI;
Design: Print: Anshu Tejpal, Electronic: Jyoti Bhargava, CHRI; Web Developer: Swayam Mohanty, CHRI.
Acknowledgement: Many thanks to all contributors

Copyright Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative

Published by Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, B-117, 1st Floor, Sarvodaya Enclave, New Delhi - 110017, India
Tel: +91-11-26850523, 26864678; Fax: +91-11-26864688; Email:

The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) is an independent international NGO mandated to ensure the practical realisation of human rights in the Commonwealth.