APRIL 18, 2011

CIPE THEMES IN DEPTH:
Access to Information

A free exchange of information is necessary to ensure that democracies are able to deliver for their citizens. In authoritarian countries and fragile democracies around the world, media and other institutions that provide access to information and guarantee freedom of speech are under threat. Democracies and market economies can function at full strength only when they embrace the idea of free and unfettered access to information for citizens and leaders alike.

A quote attributed to Thomas Jefferson famously reads, “Information is the currency of democracy.” Where insider deals define decision-making and information is hard to come by, authoritarian governments can retain power and corruption flourishes. Governments that are intent on controlling their citizenry will work to staunch any independent information flow. Alternatively, transparency in governance and economic transactions is a fundamental pillar of functional democracies and market economies. This transparency is reinforced and made possible by strong institutions that allow unrestricted access to information.

Ronald Reagan, himself known as The Great Communicator, argued that “information is the oxygen of the modern age. It seeps through the walls topped by barbed wire, it wafts across the electrified borders.” Just as free flow of information is important for democracies, it is equally important for the efficient functioning of market economies. Nobel Laureate in Economics F.A. Hayek once noted that one of the main problems in designing an efficient economic system is determining the proper ways to make knowledge available throughout society so that people can make appropriate plans and decisions.

Freedom of speech and freedom of the press are recognized as fundamental human rights, but they also have very real utilitarian aspects, such as providing a foundation for the marketplace of ideas. Just as economic markets function best with open competition, so does the free discussion of facts, opinions, policies, and alternatives help the strongest ideas emerge. Any restriction on access to information causes innovative ideas to stagnate politics, economics, or any other part of society. Entrenched interests may benefit from the tight control of information, but everyone else suffers.

Democratic rights of free speech and a free press, as well as “sunshine” laws that make government more transparent, are all crucial to public access to information. Useful access, however, requires more than the disclosure of raw data. It requires reliable intermediaries in addition to the media–think tanks, associations, researchers, writers, and others – to sort the data and provide context and sound analysis. Defending the rights and cultivating the ability of these intermediaries is a key component of ensuring effective public participation in decision-making.

Armed with information from diverse and reliable sources, the public has true freedom of choice on candidates, policies, and daily transactions. Where the public cannot make informed decisions, no government can truly claim to have the consent of the governed. Breaking through the walls that constrict public debate requires establishing competing sources of news and information, raising professional standards to minimize bias in reporting, opening up government policymaking to public eyes, educating the citizens and policymakers on public policy issues, and crafting public discussion forums.

CIPE supports efforts to expand both the scope and quality of information available to decision-makers and the public. It works with local partners toward greater transparency in government, fewer restrictions for reformers, and greater public understanding of democratic, market-oriented principles.

CIPE programs help improve the professional skills of journalists, support print publications and media programs, allow greater access to government information, and increase the availability of information through alternative communication outlets. In so doing, CIPE and its partners strengthen democratic governance mechanisms, ensuring that public officials can be held accountable for their actions, crony and corrupt deals are exposed, and citizens have a voice.

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NED  

CIPE is a core institute of the National Endowment for Democracy, which provides funding for many of CIPE's projects. CIPE is also an affiliate of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

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