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