Brechner 40th Anniversary

The Right to Information in the Age of Globalization: Acknowledging the Challenges Posed by Migration and Language

Amy Kristin Sanders, Ph.D.
Associate Professor in Residence
Journalism and Strategic Communication Program
Northwestern University, Qatar

Not long ago, a new colleague here at Northwestern’s campus in Doha, Qatar, asked me if I had a copy of the draft media law that had been proposed in 2012. I told him I did, but there was a problem. No one had ever been able to provide me with an official English-language translation – effectively making the Arabic-language copy useless to me.

Thankfully, in my four years in Qatar, these incidents have been few and far between. But, it illustrates a much larger problem that world governments have not yet adequately addressed – and in all likelihood – are not even discussing: The right to information is largely meaningless if laws only permit requests by citizens and only require provision of records in a single language. Major revisions are needed to ensure right to information (RTI) laws remain meaningful in the 21st century.

We live in an era of globalization, and international migration statistics illustrate the significant flow of transient populations into and out of countries that has occurred in recent years. A 2017 report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OCED) notes that, of the estimated 208 million international migrants, almost two-thirds of them reside in G20 nations. Reasons for the transnational movement of citizens are varied and complex, but it is occurring with great frequency to be sure. The same report documents the influx of asylum seekers in recent years, noting six  million recognized refugees (27 percent of the world total) residing in the G20 nations alone.

As these immigrants start their new lives in foreign lands, many struggle to access the very basic information necessary to ensure their safety and security. Although some RTI laws, like Canada’s Access to Information Act or the United States’ Freedom of Information Act, allow citizens, permanent residents and any person present in the country to request information, most do not.

For example, India’s Right to Information Act only provides Indian nationals with the right to seek information under the law. As a result, immigrants – whether asylum seekers from war-torn countries or legal residents working abroad – are often left without the ability to access government documents in the countries where they are physically present.

Globally, freedom of information has been recognized as a fundamental human right for nearly 70 years. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) includes the right “to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers.” Structuring RTI (or Right to Information) laws to exclude non-citizens effectively denies this fundamental human right to a segment of the population based on their citizenship status – which runs contrary not only to Article 19 but also the principles of the United Nations. In 1946, the UN General Assembly adopted Resolution 59, recognizing the right to access information as a key component of freedom of expression.

Even in countries where non-citizens have the right to request information, additional hurdles may prevent them from fully making use of the documents they seek. Although immigrants often have the language skills necessary to survive and thrive in their new environments, RTI laws that make documents available in only one language may limit their access to information.

Take the United States, for example, where the Instituto Cervantes estimates that nearly 53 million Spanish speakers reside. Of those, fewer than 12 million are bilingual, and all of them reside in a country with no federally designated official language. However, there is no right to translation included in the American law. Interestingly, even documents that are maintained in a language other than English need not be translated, according to a 2009 FOIA Post by the Department of Justice Office of Information Policy.

Although no easy answers exist to address the challenges posed by migration and language, governments must work to ensure RTI laws remain relevant in an era of globalization by ensuring meaningful access to all people within their borders. Advocacy groups must encourage the dissemination of information in multiple languages and encourage governments to acknowledge the needs of transient populations present in the countries. Once translated, government documents that exist in multiple languages must become records that are capable of being requested as a part of future inquiries.

Amy Kristin Sanders is an award-winning American journalist and licensed attorney. In 2014, she gave up tenure, packed her bags and moved 7,000 miles to Northwestern University’s campus in Doha, Qatar. As an associate professor in residence at NU-Q, she teaches comparative media law and ethics to students from more than 30 countries. Sanders is a co-author on Marc Franklin’s prominent media law casebook The First Amendment and the Fourth Estate: The Law of Mass Media. From January 2005 to January 2006, she served as the Editor of the Brechner Report while earning her Ph.D. at the University of Florida.