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The Right to Information: A critical legislation to foster social accountability

To understand the importance of the right to information (RTI), we must recognize that information does not belong to the state, government, or bureaucrats, but to the public. The government—with public money and publicly funded civil servants—creates and collects information to benefit the public they serve. Hence, information cannot be withheld from citizens. Information brings about openness, transparency, accountability, and responsiveness in government functioning that is critical for good governance.

Enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the right’s status as a legally binding treaty obligation was affirmed in Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression: this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” This article has placed the right to access information firmly within the body of human rights law, linking it to respect for the inherent dignity of all human beings. It is crucial for democracy: Information is the “oxygen” of democracy, for without information, citizens cannot make informed votes or participate in decision-making processes. In other words, the RTI underpins all other human rights including the right to food wherein all people have the right to feed themselves and their families with dignity. [1]

The RTI holds within it the right to seek information, as well as the duty to give information to store, organize, and make it easily available. Information may be withheld only when it is proven that it is in the best public interest. The duty to enable access rests with the government and has two aspects:

  • Enable public access to information upon request

  • Proactively disseminate essential information

The right to information can only be effective if it is guaranteed by law, and the procedures for accessing information are clearly laid out in the law. Today, laws that give individuals a right to access information held by public bodies are in force in nearly 125 countries globally. [2]

The right to information India
A wall in a village in Rajasthan, India, publicly promotes the employment guarantee scheme, a social protection policy that guarantees a universal basic income.


The key purpose of RTI is to foster transparency and openness in government so that citizens are well informed and can engage with the state to promote accountability and citizen-centric development. In fact, government effectiveness, control of corruption, participation and accountability are some of the key dimensions of good governance. According to Kofi Annan, the seventh Secretary-General of the United Nations, “Good governance is perhaps the single most important factor in eradicating poverty and promoting development.”

RTI is a very effective legislative tool for good governance, if implemented effectively, it can improve the implementation of government programs and policy, including their obligation to fulfil people’s right to food. National governments are obligated to respect, protect, and fulfill the right to food. They must assist people who are not able to cultivate or purchase adequate food on their own and ensure that people have information on government programs, such as social security schemes and how to access them. When governments do not fulfil their obligations, people can turn to RTI to find out what steps the government has taken. With timely, relevant, and valid information, they can defend, claim, and enforce their rights. Information can also help duty bearers, such as civil servants, fulfill their obligations regarding the right to food. For example, in India under the National Food Security Act, people are entitled to subsidized food grain. If they do not receive the food as promised by law, they can use RTI Act of India to find out how the grain is being distributed and why they were not provided.

How do we use Right to Information legislation?

Steps to acquire the Right to Information:

  1. Determine what information/record is needed.

  2. Identify the custodian ministry/department/public body to approach for the information.

  3. Send an application—usually either handwritten or electronic—to the designated officer in the relevant government department, along with the fee.

  4. Upon receiving the application, the designated officer must provide the information or reject the application if the information sought is listed in the exemptions section of the RTI law. The officer must explain to the applicant why an application was rejected.

  5. The timeframe for giving information is usually between 15 and 30 days from the application date. Failure to respond to an application within the timeframe is deemed a refusal, which means the applicant can move to the appellate process.

  6. Appeals can be made either to the same department’s designated appellate authority or to an independent Information Commission or ombudsman.

  7. Most RTI laws also provide for proactive disclosure of information where every public authority must take steps to provide as much information suo moto (by its own motion)to the public at regular intervals through various means of communication, including the internet.

What are the challenges?

Though more than 125 countries today have adopted the RTI law, the remaining countries lack enough political will to enact such legislation. Many countries with RTI laws have failed to effectively implement them. As a result, many benefits associated with transparency, accountability, and good governance have not been realized. Governments continue to function in secrecy, especially where opaque bureaucratic culture is pervasive. Moreover, outdated and inefficient information storage and retrieval practices have led to poor implementation of many countries’ laws. Hence full realization of anticipated benefits associated with access to information remains elusive. Moreover, the information systems and archival practices are often outdated and inefficient.

What is the process for incorporating access to information strategies into a society’s consciousness?

Changing a culture of secrecy to one of openness is a difficult task that can take generations. However, the first step is to raise the community’s awareness of its right to information and the government’s obligation to provide information. Developing the access-to-information culture can be divided into three phases: 1) the passage of the law; 2) its implementation; and 3) its enforcement. Passing the law is the easiest part. The most difficult part for the government is implementation and enforcement, arguably the most important parts.

The Status of the Right to Information in selected countries:


Right to Information

Burkina Faso

Article 8 of the Constitution notes: freedom of opinion, freedom of the press and the right to information are guaranteed. In 2015, Burkina Faso became the 17th country on the continent to pass the law on Right of Access to Public Information and to Administrative Documents. Given the country was going through a transitional phase, its efforts were globally commended, and this set the country on the path to a rapidly growing democracy.

But even seven years after its adoption, the right to access Information, or Law no. 051-2015/CNT, has yet to go into effect, because legislation to operationalize it has yet to be passed, thus denying citizens the right to access government-held information.


The Parliament of India had the Right to Information Act come into force on October 12, 2005 “to provide for setting out a political regime of right to information for citizens.” It allows citizens to request information from any public authority about its work, actions, etc. It is one of the strongest laws at the disposal of the common man, giving citizens the power to question public authorities and their activities, thereby not only promoting transparency, but also demanding accountability as well.

More than 20 million RTI applications were filed in India between 2005 and 2017. However, in recent times the number of RTI applications filed with the central government has dipped. This is mainly because officials are stonewalling when it comes to providing information and responding to appeals. People are increasingly finding it difficult to get information from the government. According to activists, this is a blow to the concept of a “vibrant democracy”. A film on the evolution of the Right to Information Act in India and the role of Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS). MKSS is a people’s organization and part of the growing non-party political process in India. The MKSS works with workers and peasants in the villages of Central Rajasthan. People in the area set it up in 1990 to strengthen participatory democratic processes, so that ordinary citizens could live their lives with dignity and justice.


When the new Constitution was enacted in Kenya in 2010, it heralded a new chapter in the right to information. This right is recognized and codified under Article 35 which states:

Every citizen has the right of access to:

  1. Information held by the state; and

  2. Information held by another person and required for the exercise and protection of any right and fundamental freedom.

Kenya enacted its Access to Information Act (ATI) on September 16, 2016. It upholds the right to information set down in Kenya’s 2010 Constitution. This Act gives citizens a way to track what is going on within the government, exposing corruption and mismanagement. It gives citizens the power to request transparency of public or private development programs or services.

However, challenges persist. People generally are not aware of the law. Nor do they understand how effectively it could address issues that affect them directly. Secondly, not enough regulations work in tandem with the ATI Act. And the introduction of the data protection bill poses a threat to increased access to information.


Section 37 of the Malawi Constitution guarantees the right to information. The Access to Information (ATI) law was passed in December 2016 and enacted in 2017 after approval by former President Peter Mutharika. This occurred amid reports that the former Democratic Progressive Party-led government passed it into law to hoodwink some donors who wanted to withdraw aid if ATI was not passed into law. Consequently, some analysts warned of a long battle ahead to get the law operationalized.

It did indeed take a long time, given a change of leadership. The ATI law was finally operationalized in 2020, four years after it was approved. The purpose of the law is to promote transparency and accountability in the country by providing for “the right of access to information in the custody of the public bodies and relevant private bodies; the process and the procedures related to obtaining the information.” Among other provisions of the law, information sources will have a specified time period during which they must provide information. At the end of 15 days, if there is no response, then action can be taken. The Malawi Human Rights Commission oversees ATI implementation.


Case Studies: Where has the use of the Right to Information legislation been successful?

Awareness about the law and the procedures, open government, and a good monitoring and oversight mechanism can ensure the successful implementation of the RTI Act. Ordinary people have used the Act to obtain benefits which have led to greater transparency and accountability in government. To illustrate this fact, here are a few success stories from India and Malawi:

India: This village has finally tasted the power of RTI [3]

For about two years, Suvarana Bhagyawant, a resident of Ambhegaon village in Maharashtra, visited the panchayat office to get her grandfather's death certificate. Every time, the official there would tell her to come back later or pay a bribe of Rs 500 to get the work done. She needed the certificate so that her grandmother could apply for the widow’s pension. Finally, Suvarana filed a query under the Right to Information (RTI) Act. She got the certificate within eight days.

"This piece of paper is like a weapon for the powerless to fight against the corrupt establishment,'' says Suvarana, pointing to an RTI application. For the villagers of Ambhegaon, the RTI Act has been like a long-awaited rain in a drought-prone area. “Today, we tell the officials that if they do not look at our problems, we will file an RTI query,'' says Archana Bhagyawant. She felt compelled to file an RTI query after an officer demanded a bribe of Rs 150 to issue a new ration card. "I waited for a year and finally when I filed an RTI query, I got it within three weeks. The sarpanch personally delivered it [to] my home,'' said Archana. Suvarana and Archana are part of a unique initiative begun by the Public Concern for Governance Trust (PCGT)—in partnership with the Bahujan Hitay Trust—that aims to improve the quality of villagers’ lives in Kalyan by using RTI.

India: Struggle for pensions [4]

Sumitra, a 73-year-old widow lives in one of the slums in Delhi. With no other source of income, she is wholly dependent on the meager pension she receives under the government’s old age pension scheme. However, in April 2012, she stopped getting her pension without any communication from the concerned department. Without this money, she could not pay her rent and became homeless. In June 2013, she filed an application under the RTI Act seeking information on the status of her pension. Because she had not received proper information from the Public Information Officer (PIO), she filed a second appeal with the oversight body, the Central Information Commission (CIC), in August 2013. Taking a strict view of the violation of the RTI Act the CIC awarded a compensation of Rs. 48,000 to Sumitra and imposed a penalty of Rs. 25,000 on the PIO.

Despite the public authority’s challenging the CIC order in the High Court, the Court finally awarded compensation to Sumitra equal to the pension she had lost over the years. Her pension benefits were also reinstated. She could rent a small room again and thus secure a roof over her head.

Malawi: Access to Information used to track non-delivery of teaching and learning materials [5]

Government schools in the district of Kasungu located in the central region of Malawi faced chronic shortages of teaching and learning materials for two years, despite Parliament’s approval of funds for the same. As a result, students suffered. In 2015, the Civil Society Education Coalition (CSEC), a local NGO network mobilized the Kasungu Education Network (a network of CSOs working on education) to carry out a public expenditure tracking exercise to address the situation. A central aspect of the exercise involved using access to information as a tool to gather information and facts about the situation. The network filed information requests and made all the necessary follow-ups with the District Education Office and the Ministry of Education, visiting several times to get the administration’s responses to their request.

The network wanted to understand what caused the chronic shortage of teaching and learning materials in Kasungu government schools. Upon getting information about the supplier, the district education network visited the supplier’s operation base to ascertain the authenticity of the business. They discovered that the supplier’s business certificate only allows him to deal in electrical and other appliances, not education materials. They also discovered that the District Education Manager (DEM) for Kasungu had awarded a contract and paid a supplier to deliver teaching and learning materials for two consecutive years even though the supplier was not delivering. Finally, the supplier was forced to reimburse all funds meant for the supplies.

The key insight is that empowering community members to demand and request information held by duty bearers (government officials, civil servants) can go a long way toward increasing transparency and accountability in development projects in Malawi. Duty bearers feel obliged to effectively deliver services knowing that underperformance will be subjected to public and community scrutiny.



[1] Toby Mendel, “Freedom of Information as an Internationally Protected Human Right,” Comparative Media Law Journal 1, no. 1 (2003): 39-70.

[2] International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), “UNESCO Finds 125 Countries Provide for Access to Information”, SDG Knowledge Hub, published July 18, 2019,

[4] Bhardwaj, Anjali, and Amrita Johri. The Right to Information Act 2005, a Primer. New Delhi: Right to Food Campaign, 2016.

[5] Africa Freedom of Information Centre, “Enhancing Good Governance through Citizens’ Access to Information- Case Studies on Access to Information in Kenya, Malawi and Uganda,” Kampala: 2016.



Africa Freedom of Information Centre. “Enhancing Good Governance through Citizens’ Access to Information- Case Studies on Access to Information in Kenya, Malawi and Uganda.” Kampala: 2016.

Bhardwaj, Anjali and Amrita Johri. The Right to Information Act 2005, a Primer. New Delhi: Right to Food Campaign, 2016, RTI Primer 2016 English version for printing.pdf - Google Drive.

Birner, Regina. "Improving Governance to Eradicate Hunger and Poverty." 2020 Focus Brief on the World's Poor and Hungry People. Washington, DC: International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), 2007.

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). The Right to Food: A Window on the World, Resource and Activity Guide. Rome: 2006.

Mendel, Toby. “Freedom of Information as an Internationally Protected Human Right.” Comparative Media Law Journal 1, no. 1 (2003): 39–70.

Shah, Anup. "Causes of Hunger are Related to Poverty." Global Issues 7, 2010.


About the Author:

Sohini Paul has more than two decades of experience in the development sector, during which time she has contributed and supported the work of numerous social change organizations, working on issues of local self-governance, the right to information and land rights. She has worked on capacity building of civil society organizations from grassroots community groups to large networks in many countries around the world. She is working as a facilitator and coach for the Civil Society Academy since 2015.

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