Posted by: U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine John F. Tefft
“A popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and the people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”
– James Madison, the fourth U.S. president and author of the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution
On February 3, Ukraine joined the community of democracies that recognize citizens’ right to be informed of their government’s activities so that they can hold it accountable. President Yanukovych’s signature on the law on Access to Public Information is a promise to the Ukrainian people – journalists and civil society in particular – that their right to know and report on what the authorities do in their name will be legally enshrined and honored. Now comes the hard part: implementing the law and ensuring that politicians and bureaucrats do not weaken the law by hiding improper behavior behind self-serving claims of government confidentiality. While no government can do its job of protecting the security and prosperity of its country without secrets, the key is to ensure that protected information is only applied according to legitimate rules. Political and personal embarrassment – or criminal activity! – are not valid grounds for classifying information.
While my country was founded in 1776 with the Declaration of Independence and its then bold declaration that “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,” it was actually Sweden that passed the world’s first freedom of information law in that year. The United States did not pass its own federal law until President Lyndon Johnson signed the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) into law on July 4, 1966 – fully 190 years later than the signing of the Declaration of Independence. It was only the third such law in the world, following Sweden and Finland, and was considered revolutionary, but since then about 80 other nations have followed suit. Like the new Ukrainian law, the FOIA guarantees citizens and foreigners alike the right to receive copies of government documents within a reasonable time after a request; only limited types of information may be redacted based on considerations such as national security or privacy of individual citizens.
FOIA presumes that all federal government documents are open to public access, and every U.S. state and territory has a similar law ensuring public access to information. From the beginning, the law has been used successfully even to the embarrassment of the government; only two years after passage a FOIA request revealed details of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam. Despite this, openness increased further when President Bill Clinton signed an expansion of the law in 1996 to include digital information. On the day after he was sworn in, President Obama issued a memorandum directing Executive Branch agencies that: “The Freedom of Information Act should be administered with a clear presumption: In the face of doubt openness prevails.”
The new Ukrainian law is written to ensure that journalists can perform their work without interference, that civil society can stay informed so as to advocate best for further reforms, and that the citizens of Ukraine in general will be able to know what their representatives are doing in their name. Every interested person will now be able to request information from the government, monopolies, and businesses that are financed from the state budget and the authorities must reply no later than five days from the day of receiving the request – or in emergency situations, within 48 hours. I would hope that President Yanukovych and the Government of Ukraine will do all in their power to ensure that the implementation of the new law ensures the greatest possible access for the citizens of Ukraine.