Some inspiring case studies which illustrate the powerful ways in which people have wrought social changes by pursuing information requests.
In early 1998 a young Thai girl named Natthanit took the standard entrance exam for admission to the well regarded state primary school – Katsetsart Demonstration School – an exam she had been working towards for two years. Later, she was told that she had failed the exam and could not be admitted to the school. However, when her mother, Sumalee Limpa-Owart asked the Rector of the school if she could see her daughter’s answer sheet and marks awarded, she was refused.
Two months later, Sumalee used Thailand’s Official Information Act to request access to her daughter’s marks and answer script. In November 1998, the Official Information Commission ruled that the answer sheets and marks of Natthanit and the 120 students who were admitted to Katsetsart Demonstration School were public information and had to be disclosed. The school and parents of the students who had secured admission resisted, claiming that the information was private and should not be released. Despite the Commission’s orders in favour of Sumalee the school continued to deny their obligation to disclose.
Sumalee continued with her legal battle against the school and in 2000, the Supreme Court of Thailand ruled that the complete list of students, including names of candidates, must be disclosed. The records revealed that a majority of the students who had secured admission, regardless of their poor performance in the entrance exam, belonged to leading political and business families. This information led to a media and public outrage, and more families of children who were denied entry requested information from the school using the Official Information Act.
The Thailand State Council ruled that the school’s admission policy violated Thailand’s constitutional guarantee for education regardless of one’s social or economic grounds. Thailand’s Ministry of University Affairs ruled that state schools, such as the Katsetsart Demonstration School must amend their admission procedures. By using Thailand’s Official Information Act to get these records, Sumalee prompted similar queries, breaking the habitual acceptance of unfair practices. Her actions catalysed a nation-wide campaign for better access to education for all children, not just for those from a privileged background.
With over one billion people living in India and 80% of these people living on less than US$2 per day, the Central Government established a Targeted Public Distribution System (TPDS) consisting of fair-price shops dotted all over the country that provide essential rations – rice, wheat, sugar, cooking oil and kerosene (fuel oil) – at highly subsidised rates to help the poor to get over severe deprivation. Yet even with these lower prices, the poor who are lucky enough to be covered by this system can barely afford to buy rations. The system is not free from corruption and the media has often highlighted instances of diversion and the black marketing of supplies by unscrupulous shop owners acting in league with corrupt bureaucrats.
Every poor family is required by law to formally apply to the Office of the Deputy Mamlatdar (local government officer) for a ration card – an essential document that records the names of all family members and the quantity of rations they are entitled to buy from the fair-price shop. In theory, people should be able to walk into the Deputy Mamlatdar’s office on any working day and complete the formalities of applying for a ration card. However, in Kalol taluk (sub-district) in the State of Gujarat, a large sign pasted on the outer wall of the Deputy Mamlatdar’s office instructed people to visit it only on Saturdays if they wanted to apply for a ration card. All government offices in Gujarat remain open only on the 1st and 3rd Saturday every month, other Saturdays are holidays. This meant that people living in about 70 nearby villages could visit the office only two days a month to apply for their cards. Everybody knew that on those two crowded days people were given priority if they had bribed officials or their touts.
Aslambhai Diwan who lives in Kalol filed a request by post under India’s Right to Information Act 2005 (RTI Act) to find out more about the Deputy Mamlatdar’s responsibilities and duties and the entitlements of the people under the TPDS. He also asked for a copy of any rule or order issued by the government that required that office to entertain ration card-related work only on Saturdays. Fifteen days later Aslambhai was summoned to the Deputy Mamlatdar’s office and advised to withdraw the request. He was told he had no business interfering in the working of government offices. Aslambhai refused to withdraw the application insisting that under the RTI Act he had the right to receive a reply. He advised the officer that he was well within his rights to refuse the request provided he mentioned the same in writing along with reasons for refusal, so there was no need to withdraw the application.
The Deputy Mamlatdar had no choice but to respond to the information request as not doing so would have made him liable for monetary penalty. He informed Aslambhai in writing that there was no such rule or government order that required them to entertain ration card-related work only on Saturdays. This procedure was adopted apparently, for the “convenience” of poor people most of whom are wage labourers. The officer also gave a written assurance that he would entertain applications for ration cards on all working days and during all working hours. Now families are able to apply for their ration cards whenever they wish during the week without paying bribes or waiting in long, unending queues. By using the RTI Act hundreds of families in Aslambhai’s community were able to gain much easier access to their entitlements under India’s TPDS system.
The United Kingdom is widely regarded as a country where women’s rights are respected and upheld. In all areas of public life women have the same rights and freedoms as men, for example the right to vote, to own property and to contest elections for public office. However, the legal entitlement of equal pay for equal work has been slow to become a practical reality. In 1970, the Equal Pay Act was introduced and made it illegal for employers to pay men and women different salaries for doing the same or similar work. This law has helped to reduce the gender pay gap, but statistics in 2004 still pointed to huge inequalities. Independent research discovered that on average women in the UK earned 24% less than men, in 2004.
A number of reasons have been cited for this “gender pay gap” including historical differences in education and the fact that the lowest paid occupational sectors remain female-dominated. In addition to this, there were widely held perceptions of a virtual “glass ceiling” for women managers which meant that men were much more likely to be promoted than their equally qualified and experienced female colleagues to top management positions. One particular public body to come under scrutiny at this time was the BBC.
In 2006, an anonymous applicant submitted a request for information, under the UK Freedom of Information Act 2000, on whether the BBC was paying its female news reporters less than their male counterparts. When the information was released it confirmed a huge difference between male and female reporters’ salaries. In spite of the BBC’s professed commitment to gender equality, it continued to pay female correspondents an average of £6,500 a year less than their male colleagues.
The discovery came at a time of mounting public pressure for the government to tackle gender equality within the public sector. In response, the government made recommendations for all public bodies to implement a two-year plan to tackle gender inequality in the workplace, placing particular emphasis on closing the gender pay gap. By 2008, 45% of all large organisations are required to have undertaken pay reviews.
Shortly after the BBC’s unequal pay scales were discovered and publicised by the national media, the BBC announced its plans to undertake a thorough pay review to identify any discrepancies within the organisation. Although it claimed that the gap in reporter’s wages was a result of differences in age and experience rather than gender, the fact remains that the organisation was paying female employees significantly less for doing the same work – a practice in contravention of international human rights standards.
The UK still has a long way to go towards ensuring full equality for working women and it is important that people continue to use their right to information to hold to account those corporations and authorities that continue to lag behind. However, the case of the BBC illustrates that successes are possible when individual organisations are shamed in the public domain. Information sheds light on outdated policies and practices and spurs people to demand change.
All over the world, lesbian and gay people experience discrimination and the violation of their basic human rights, even their right to life, simply because of their sexual orientation. Seven countries around the world still award the death penalty for people who engage in same-sex acts. Iran is infamous for its violation of the right to life through the use of the death penalty for even minor offences. In spite of the country’s proclamation that it would only award the death penalty for the most serious of crimes, Iran continues to have one of the highest death penalty rates in the world, sentencing people to execution for such vaguely worded offences as “corruption on earth”.
In Iran, homosexuality is a criminal offence under the penal code, with punishments ranging from multiple flogging to life imprisonment and death. Although the country continues to publicly deny the fact, Iran has a long history of executing homosexuals and civil society groups estimate that it has sentenced approximately 4,000 lesbian women and gay men to death since 1979. To ward off intense international criticism of these human rights violations, Iran has often accused sentenced individuals of crimes such as rape and murder and the current President has even gone so far as to claim that there are no homosexuals living in the State of Iran.
This denial of a whole community of individuals prompted the British newspaper The Times to request information from the United Kingdom’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office using the UK’s Freedom of Information Act. The Times requested the minutes of a meeting that took place between British and Iranian MPs at the Inter-Parliamentary Union, a peace meeting held in May.
The documents released under the Act contained shocking evidence of Iran’s blatant violations of the rights of homosexual people and of its willingness to subject them to torture and execution. In the meeting, one of Iran’s most high-ranked politicians stated his view that homosexuals should be tortured and executed. He was recorded as stating: “that according to Islam gays and lesbianism were not permitted” and he proclaimed that: “those in overt activity should be executed”. He argued that: “homosexuality is against human nature and that humans are here to reproduce. Homosexuals do not reproduce.”
This illustrates the power of the right to information to create awareness of rights’ abuses and prejudices despite political and national boundaries. The UK media’s use of access laws in one country were used to highlight human rights violations in another, from where it may have been impossible to get authentic information or indeed any at all. Access to information affirmed rights violations, state prejudice and discriminatory treatment.