The right to know

Celebrate your democratic right of access to information.

By ALONA VINOGRAD
September 27, 2011 07:18
4 minute read.
Knesset vote [file]

Knesset vote 311. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)

Let me share something a few of you may not know – first, the pomegranate has 613 seeds. Second, and not less important – the 28th of September is The International Right to Know Day.

This may come to some of you as a surprise, but in the 21st century there are still countries in which access to information is scarce and limited. Countries where public information is kept hidden and sealed, in offices that stand behind locked doors and corridors of bureaucracy and secrecy.

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Is Israel such a country? I’m sure that by the end of this article you’ll have figured that out for yourselves.


On Right to Know Day advocates and NGOs throughout the world try to enhance public awareness of citizens’ basic right to know. Words such as democracy, transparency, openness and accessibility – are all relevant to the claim that is shouted out loud on this day – the public has the right to demand and receive information that will show us what our government and officials are doing with our money, with their time, with our vote.

So much for the ideal, the vision.

But what’s the reality? In Israel, the Freedom of Information Law was passed in 1998. The law, a relatively modern and advanced one, enables every citizen to submit a Freedom of Information request to the relevant body in order to receive the desired information.

Without going into too many complicated legal explanations, it is possible to say that putting aside issues like national security, right to privacy and so forth – the law is formally progressive regarding the information you and I are able to receive from public offices.

With all due respect to declarations, the important thing is the implementation of the law, and here our well-known culture of secrecy and bureaucratic exhaustion can be seen at full power. The Movement for Freedom of Information (FOIM) was established to promote the implementation of the Freedom of Information Law thus encouraging transparency, which is key to improving public confidence in government, increasing its accountability and efficiency and generally strengthening the democratic system.

So, what has FOIM ask for under the Freedom of Information Law and not received (or rather eventually received – after taking the public authority to court)? Here are a very few examples: FOIM asked for the names of criminals who had escaped from prison, after being denied that information due to claims that to revealing this information would constitute a violation of these prisoners’ privacy (yes, this is not a joke). FOIM took the Prisons Authority to court and won.

FOIM asked the Chief Rabbinate of Israel to give us the list of negligent mohelim (those who carry out circumcisions); we were denied, took the authority to court and won (twice).

FOIM asked that the conflict of interest agreements of Knesset members be revealed. After being denied, the movement won the case in court.

Today the information is uploaded automatically to the government’s website.

FOIM asked for quality indicators of health services provided by the Kupot Holim, and recently the court decided that this is indeed public information that should be revealed.

FOIM asked for the Treasury Department’s budget preparation meeting minutes. We are currently waiting for its answer.

This list goes on and on.

Requests submitted by the movement, other NGOs, journalists and individuals, most of the time are denied, or the applicants exhausted, by government officials who for some reason do not understand that they are not the owners of the information in question, but merely its custodians.

The process of receiving information through Freedom of Information requests is the only effective tool available to the public to watch over its leaders, to safeguard democracy and force the government to be more open. It reveals information that enhances NGOs’ struggles, as well as those of journalists and individuals.

It was in the 16th century that Sir Francis Bacon said the famous phrase: “knowledge is power” – five centuries later, in the midst of a social upheaval that is washing over the country, on Right to Know Day, it’s safe to say that his statement is still true.

The demand that government share the knowledge it holds with the public is legitimate and worthy. Limiting access to information, to knowledge, weakens the public and numbs its senses. It’s the responsibility of the government to provide information, but it’s also the responsibility of the public to demand it.

Happy Right to Know Day!

The writer is the director of the Movement for Freedom of Information.


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