Transparency, accountability and the fight against corruption: FOI laws and beyond

Freedom of information can contribute to government openness and accountability, and help prevent and combat corruption, thereby enhancing good governance.

Yet freedom of information laws are not in themselves enough to achieve such goals, which also depend on broader elements of governance (for example, the level of independence between the different branches of government and how they interact), the existence of other laws that may curtail or guarantee freedom of expression and information, and on people’s values, practices and attitudes, among other factors. Another key factor is the existence of a press that is plural and independent of government and powerful commercial interests, which provides information that individuals need to hold government accountable. 

For news media to promote transparency and accountability, FOI laws can be a critical tool. Also key is the safety of journalists and the protection of their sources. Of great help to the media’s watchdog role, and relevant to fighting corruption in general, are laws guaranteeing safety of whistleblowers. The same holds for other provisions to foster openness, like those related to disclosure of public officials’ assets, information about political parties and lobbying, or which mandate open government meetings. Detrimental to the media’s potential contribution are practices such as discriminatory use of advertising as a means of control, punitive taxation, concentration of media ownership, penal defamation laws, licensing requirements, abusive state secret acts, etc. 

There is widespread recognition of the need to keep an eye on the watchdog, demanding accountability by the press itself. Promotion of professional, accurate and ethical reporting therefore becomes key, and may be enhanced by training journalists, undertaking media monitoring efforts, voluntary codes of practice and other mechanisms for self-regulation, for example. Finally, as mentioned elsewhere in this note, the development of information and media literacy, allowing the public to be more than passive recipients of messages channeled by the press, is also a relevant element of an accountability framework. 

Food for Thought:

  • What elements need to be in place for FOI laws and others regulating disclosure of certain types of information to effectively lead to accountability? How do these transparency instruments interact/feed into each other?
  • What are the conditions for the media’s positive impact in terms of transparency, accountability and the fight against corruption?
  • What does the achievement of the right to know imply in terms of accountability by the media?
  • What elements characterize a good whistleblower law and under which conditions is one likely to work effectively?
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