A Chronological look at Freedom of information
The concept underlying the ideal of freedom of access to government held information actually dates back to 7th Century China during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) and particularly during the reign of Emperor T’ai-tsung (627-649). T’ai-tsung established an “Imperial Censorate”- an elite group of highly educated ‘scholar officials’ who recorded government decisions and correspondence and criticized the government, including the emperor. This institution, based on Confucian principles and philosophies, had a role to scrutinize the government and its officials, to expose “misgovernance, bureaucratic inefficiencies and official corruption.”
The first known statute worldwide to embrace aspects of access to information was a 1707 statute in Sweden and Finland (which was part of the Swedish Kingdom at the time). The statute compelled publishers of all printed material to lodge ‘legal deposit copies’ of everything they produced with government approved libraries. Interestingly, one of the major purposes for requiring this deposit was to facilitate censorship and supervision of written material in the kingdom. Another aim, however, was to ensure that publications in the realm would be accessible to the universities. This aim, along with the fact that the statute effected in the retention and indexing of documents and was later incorporated in other freedom of information and press statutes in Sweden, prompts Lamble to credit the statute as a forerunner of what would become freedom of information laws.
The Freedom of the Press Act of Sweden, passed in 1766, was the first statute to embrace the principles of freedom of information as we know them today. The Statute required that official documents should upon request “immediately be made available to anyone making a request” at no cost. Now a part of the Constitution, the Statute decreed that “every Swedish citizen shall have free access to official documents.” The Swedish Act was actually introduced by a Finnish clergyman and Member of Parliament in Sweden, Anders Chydenius. Chydenius who graduated at the age of 24 with a Master of Arts degree from the University of Uppsala in Sweden (the oldest university in Scandinavia) in addition to his duties as a Lutheran curate, also practiced medicine, and was very interested in economic politics. A radical reformist, his most widely known work, Den nationale vinsten (The National Profit) published in 1765 has caused him to be acclaimed a ‘Finnish predecessor to Adam Smith’ whose Wealth of Nations which advocated several similar ideas was published 11 years after Chydenius’ book. A student of Chinese freedom of the press and information principles of the Ch’ing dynasty (1644-1911), Chydenius also wrote extensively on the Tang dynasty (618-907) as precursors to freedom of information principles. The Swedish press statute was updated with a new statute in both 1810 and 1812.
After the Revolution in France, the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man required access to information on the government’s budget to be made available to the public “All the citizens have a right to decide, either personally or by their representatives, as to the necessity of the public contribution; to grant this freely; to know to what uses it is put.”
Colombia’s Code of Political and Municipal Organization of 1888 also embraced freedom of information, allowing citizens to request documents held in government agencies and archives unless their release was specifically forbidden by another law.
In 1917 Finland declared itself independent. After electing its first president in 1919, the new Republic passed a Constitution Act resembling the Swedish system of fundamental rights. The legislation included a local version of the Swedish Freedom of the Press Act and codified freedom of access to government held information. This statute, like the 1707 deposit statute, also specifically identified one of its aims as being to facilitate censorship. Nonetheless, the Act on Freedom of the Press, passed in Finland in 1919 was the first statute passed in the twentieth century recognizing freedom of information.
In 1946 the United States Congress passed its Administrative Procedure Act which mandated all federal agencies to “keep and maintain records which were to be open to inspection by the public.”
In May 1946, the United States delegation to the United Nations persuaded the Commission on Human Rights to create a Sub-commission on Freedom of Information. Thus, the UN General Assembly called an International Conference on Freedom of Information in Geneva in 1947-8. However, the 1953 draft convention on Freedom of Information which resulted was never implemented. The convention was opposed by a group of western journalists including Australian Sir Lloyd Dumas, managing director of the Advertiser Newspaper Ltd. Dumas was concerned that if Australia signed the Convention, a large part of the power of the Australian press would be transferred to the Federal Government. Thus he actively liaised with members of the Commonwealth Press Union, the America Society of Editors and the International Press Institute in playing an instrumental role in forcing the abandonment of the Convention.
In 1949 the Swedish government passed a new Freedom of the Press Act which allowed wide access to information which, along with some amendments (the latest being made in 1975), governs access to information in Sweden today. Similarly, the Finnish government, in 1951, passed the Publicity of Official Documents Act which remained in effect until 1999.
In 1966 the United States passed its Freedom of Information Act.
Today more than fifty countries around the world have freedom of information statutes. Of these, fifteen were passed since 2000 and 35 since 1992. This trend in the last ten years to pass legislation has been credited to the fact that several international bodies have embraced freedom of information as a fundamental right.