Open Government Owes a Lot to a Couple of 18th-Century Finns

It seems like such a simple idea these days - "the life and strength of civil liberty consist in limited Government and unlimited freedom of the written word."

But that was a heady notion in 1759 when Finn Peter Forsskål, (1732 - 1763) a Renaissance man in Sweden's Age of Liberty, published "Thoughts on Civil Liberty," skirting the official censor and making off with the entire press run of 500 copies to make sure his enlightened views on man's relationship to the state got its fair due in the court of public opinion.

His views were predicated on the notion that it was better to fight with words than bullets. That society could settle its disputes through debate and discussion and that, in essence, the government apparatus and its workings should be open to public inspection and criticism.

It was the moral and intellectual strength of Forsskål's thoughts, written into law by another Finn, politician and priest Anders Chydenius, and passed by Sweden's Diet in 1766 that gave the world, among other great ideas, its first freedom of information law.

The tortured history of that law has left a legacy for all of us interested in maintaining open government as a pillar of good government. Because we see the law as the world's first Freedom of Information Act. And we celebrate that law this year, 250 years later, as we approach the 2016 commemoration of World Press Freedom Day on 3 May with a series of events highlighting the public's right to access to information.

As Representative on Freedom of the Media for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, I am committed upholding, defending and promoting the free flow of information as expressed in OSCE resolutions. There are plenty.

From the earliest days of the OSCE and its predecessor, the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe, the participating States have pledged to uphold "the right of freedom of expression, including the right to communication and the right of the media to collect, report and disseminate information, news and opinions." (Document of the Moscow Meeting of the Conference on the Human Dimension of the CSCE, 1991).

The right of the public to observe and comment on the workings of politicians and bureaucrats may seem to be the norm these days - at least in countries considered fully functioning democracies. But like many other pillars of free expression, access to information has its detractors and outright opponents. That is where my Office comes in.

Over the past 15 years my Office has provided scores of legal reviews to States considering adopting or amending access to information laws, the latest being in March when the Hungarian legislature was considering amendments to the nation's Freedom of Information Act. I expressed concern about several of the proposed changes in the law. My interest is making sure legislation throughout the OSCE region is written to comply with international standards and OSCE commitments. Within any law, however, there is room for interpretation, so my additional goal is to ensure that public officials are aware of international "best practices" so the legislation is fairly implemented in practice as well as theory.

Unfortunately, this is not always the case.

My files are rife with instances of States whose laws on the statute books are exemplary, while their implementation is not. On some occasions the failure to comply with the law as written is unintentional; public servants are not necessarily expected to be fully versed on the nuances of what constitutes meeting the letter of the law on legislation without specific training - which my Office is happy to provide.

But just as often the failure to adequately fulfill the expectations of the law is a result of deliberate feet-dragging by government bureaucrats who, taking their cue from the top brass, procrastinate and obfuscate and obstruct requests for the express purpose of thwarting the disclosure of embarrassing or potentially illegal government dealings.

It is the fight against that attitude which gives meaning to our celebration of this year's World Press Freedom Day focus. The right to government-held information is an essential element of democracy and a government responsive to its people. As this year's slogan goes: Access to Information: It is your right!

Mijatović is the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, based in Vienna, Austria.