Exercising your right to access information

In this section we outline the issues that you may want to consider in preparing to make requests for information held by the state:

  • Who can request information from public authorities?
  • What kind of information can you request?
  • How do you decide which entities to ask? Should you make one request, or multiple requests?

Who can request information?

Most modern access to information laws grant information access rights to any person or organisation, without discrimination on any grounds. In some countries, however, local laws state that the applicant must be a resident or citizen, even though some international instruments prohibit discrimination on the basis of domicile (place of residence).


EXAMPLE: Article 3(9) of the Aarhus Convention states:

“Within the scope of the relevant provisions of this Convention, the public shall have access to information, have the possibility to participate in decision-making and have access to justice in environmental matters without discrimination as to citizenship, nationality or domicile and, in the case of a legal person, without discrimination as to where it has its registered seat or an effective centre of its activities.”


What kind of information can you request?

The starting point is that your request can include any kind of information, regardless of its form (written, visual, aural, electronic, etc.), its owner, or its author.

Some laws give you the right to access “information”, and others guarantee access to “documents”. Usually these words are defined broadly and include records of any kind, including audio and video recordings or electronic files. In most cases the distinction between these two terms is not important. (It is only likely to be significant in limited circumstances, e.g. if you need a copy of the original document to inspect a visible feature of it.  Examples of such features would be the original document’s format, a signature or a stamp that would not necessarily be visible in other content forms.)

Public bodies are usually only required to disclose information that is contained in an existing document. They are generally not obligated to generate new information or documents.

TIP: You would be able to request the budget of a specific governmental department, but a request for a ministry’s opinion on a particular matter would normally fall outside the access to information law, unless that opinion had already been recorded and held in any form by the requested agency.


What about electronic information?

You may well wish to make a request for an extract from an electronic database. If the information is already available in that form, this should present no problem. In many countries, public bodies are required to create the extract if the necessary search query can be created without an unreasonable effort.


What if the documents relate to official functions?

In many countries, the right of access to information is limited to information or documents that are related to the public body’s official functions. Under such legislation, it would not be possible to request, for example, personal documents held by a civil servant in his or her office, since these are not “official documents”.

Other laws would deal with this issue at the level of exceptions (meaning that a request of this kind might be refused on specific grounds, such as privacy). We discuss this further in the section of this guide headed “Exceptions”.


How do I decide which entities to ask?

Step 1:

Find out:

  • WHO holds the information and
  • WHERE it may be held. It may be held by multiple public bodies, in the same or in different countries or regions. Try to find out exactly which public bodies are likely to hold the information you want.

Step 2:  

Decide on your strategy for requesting the information:

  • Can you get all of the information that you need from a single source? Or do you need to request the information from several different places at the same time? Consider what fees will apply to each request.

EXAMPLE: Requests to multiple sources

A group of European journalists wanted to know who benefits from the agricultural subsidies given by the European Union. They requested information from both the individual EU member states and from the EU itself and succeeded in obtaining detailed accounts of farm subsidies from multiple sources. This information now forms the basis of a website aimed at improving the transparency of the subsidy system.

  • Check whether the bodies who may hold the information are covered by your country’s freedom of information laws. Normally the freedom of information law lists all the bodies that are exempted from the law. However in some countries exemptions are scattered in other pieces of legislation. Even if a body is exempted, it is still worth trying to file a request for information, although it may be more difficult to appeal if your request is refused.

TIP: Which country to request information from?

If you are investigating corruption in relation to a project in country A, the information you need may include the minutes of meetings between a company and a government representatives in country B, which may have a better access to information law.


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