Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Right To Know

I went to Watching America yesterday looking for something specific, but had one of those serendipitous moments in which what I found was so much better that I don't even remember what my initial search was for. This article in China's Ifeng explores a concept which we tend to take for granted, that of our right to know just what our government is doing.

We tend to think of the right to know as a peculiarly American ideal, but, as this opinion piece points out, it's a right that all people deserve and one that many governments espouse. President Hu of China listed it first on a list of four basic rights. Now, while the leader of China may just have been paying lip service to that right, at least he acknowledged its importance.

Here in the US, that right is enshrined in the Freedom of Information Act, a law which was enacted during President Lyndon Johnson's administration. The law was obviously not a big hit with members of his administration, especially those working in the Pentagon. It still isn't. It's tough to pry information out of any agency, especially when secrecy is cloaked in "security" needs. Dogged journalists still find ways to get enough information to inform the public if they are tenacious enough. And that is what this article is ultimately about.

...don’t be mistaken — the right to know, as an important democratic principle and a civil right, was not freely given to the people by the Constitution — at least not in England, France or America. ...

America started to legally recognize the people’s right to know when the Freedom of Information Act was passed in 1966 and took effect in 1967. President Lyndon Johnson, the president who signed the law, praised the law, saying that it showed that the United States "values highly the right of the people to know how their government is operating."

The passage of this law created an entirely different situation compared to how this issue was previously handled. ...

The inspiration that I drew from the American federal government and its people’s movement toward the right to know is that in order to gain the trust of its citizens, the government cannot rely solely on its “benevolent policy.” It has to rely on the law. The government has to make sure that there are laws to follow, and the laws must be followed. As for the public, it is not enough that the laws exist. People have to use the laws to counter the government actions and use the laws to protect themselves.
[Emphasis added]

Like any muscle, this right has to be exercised constantly if it is to maintain its usefulness and purpose. Journalists and citizens themselves have to constantly request full information, not just the partial, heavily redacted mess that the government tends to send out until the lawsuits make it too embarrassing not to comply. Only in this way can citizens protect themselves from government over-reaching.

The reason why President Hu put the right to know above the other three rights is not because it is the most important right. It is because in modern, civilized society, without the right to know, people cannot truly have their right to participate, their right to express or their right to oversee the government’s actions. How can you participate when you know nothing? How can you express freely when you are kept in the dark? How can you oversee the government’s actions when you as a citizen don’t even know what the government is doing?


And well said.

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