By: Mark Fitzgerald
For the first time ever, an international court has declared that access to government information is a human right.
Ruling in a case brought by three Chilean environmental activists, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights declared that a “right of general access” to government-held information is protected by Article 13 of the American Convention on Human Rights. Article 13 deals with “freedom of thought and expression.”
“With respect to the facts of the present case, the court concludes that Article 13 of the Convention, which specifically establishes the rights to ‘seek’ and ‘receive’ ‘information’, protects the right of all persons to request access to information held by the State, with the exceptions permitted by the restrictions regime of the Convention,” the court said in its ruling. “As a result, this article supports the right of persons to receive such information and the positive obligation on the State to supply it, so that the person may have access to the information or receive a reasoned response when, for ground permitted by the Convention, the State may limit access to it in the specific case.”
The court further ruled that government information that isn’t otherwise restricted “should be provided without a need to demonstrate a direct interest in obtaining it, or a personal interest, except in cases where there applies a legitimate restriction.”
“The right to freedom of thought and of expression contemplates protection of the right of access to information under State control. …” the court also wrote.
The Inter-American Court is an autonomous court of the Organization of American States (OAS).
An English translation of the ruling was provided by Access Info Europe, which predicted the decision would have international repercussions, persuading European countries such as Spain, Italy and Greece, which do not have access to information laws, to adopt the measures. “The European Court of Human Rights, which to date has only ruled that there is a right to information if it is needed to defend other rights, will be likely to consider widening its interpretation of the right to information,” the group said.
In the unanimous ruling, the Inter-American court made sweeping claims for the right of access, saying that “in a democratic society it is indispensable that state authorities are governed by the principle of maximum disclosure, which establishes the presumption that all information should be accessible, subject to a restricted system of exceptions.”
And it is the state that must meet the burden of proving the need for restrictions on access, the court ruled.
The case — Claude Reyes and others v. Chile — was brought by three environmental activists, including a member of the Chilean parliament, who in 1998 asked the government for documents related to the U.S.-based Trillium Corp. The firm was logging in a forest in Tierra del Fuego.
The Inter-American court, which held a hearing on the case last April, ruled that Chile had violated the right to information not only by refusing to provide the information, but also for not having a law that guarantees the right of persons to request and receive public information.
“The significance of this ruling is that it confirms in international law the right to information, a right already established by dozens of national constitutions and by court cases from around the world,” Access Info Europe Executive Director Helen Darbishire said in a statement. “It will be invaluable for activists who need government information to defend other human rights, protect the environment, and fight corruption.”