The importance of the right of access to information in any society cannot be over-emphasized and is underpinned by the fact that it is a ‘cross-cutting right’, in that it is interconnected with all other human rights, whether civil, political or socio-economic. This interconnectedness of access to information with other human rights contributes to its utility as a leverage right- one which can be used for the realization of all other human rights.
The right to know is a critical part of development, as is increasingly being recognized internationally. Information is the life-blood of accountability. By enabling citizens to hold those in power to account, access to information law drives the realization of socio-economic rights, such as the right to education, adequate health care and welfare protection.
As Amartya Sen, the 1998 winner of the Nobel Prize for economics says, information is crucial to development and the prevention of disaster. Sen found that famines have never taken place in countries with a democracy and a free press. “A free press and the practice of democracy contribute greatly to bringing out information that can have an enormous impact on policies for famine prevention…A free press and an active political opposition constitute the best early warning system a country threatened by famine could ever have.”
A second role for access to information is in fighting corruption. Corruption, defined broadly as “the abuse of public power for private gain”, is of growing national, regional and international concern, particularly because of its negative developmental consequences and impact on socio-economic rights. In a context of political and economic globalisation all are affected, although it is the poor who suffer most. Whilst corruption is now acknowledged to be a feature of all societies it has a particularly devastating impact on development and good governance in developing countries in Africa. This is because it undermines economic growth, discourages foreign investment and reduces the optimal utilisation of limited resources available for infrastructure, public services and anti-poverty programmes. It may also undermine political institutions by weakening the legitimacy and accountability of governments.