What is Democracy? (45): Freedom of Information

In a previous post I discussed the concept of “accountability” and how it’s typical of democracy: politicians, legislators, judges etc. have to give account of their actions. They have to explain what they did, why they did it, and how they did it. Democracy means that the people can dismiss their leaders if they believe they haven’t carried out their job according to the wishes of the people or according to the law. This possible dismissal can only happen if the people have complete and accurate information on the job performance of their leaders. That is why democracies have a free press that can investigate the conduct of politicians. That is also why they have parliaments where the opposition can question the government or the majority, and why they have “freedom of information acts” (see also here). Such acts – often called “sunshine laws” – impose mandatory disclosure of government records, with some exceptions. The people have a right to know, but unfortunately even countries with a long tradition of democracy often find it difficult to be completely transparent. Certain circumstances such as the war on terror make it easy for the governments of those countries to restrict their information obligations. Freedom of information legislation is often full of exceptions or subject to emergency restrictions.

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