Columbia International Affairs Online: Working Papers

CIAO DATE: 09/2013

Breathing Life into Freedom of Information Laws: The Challenges of Implementation in the Democratizing World

Craig L. LaMay, Robert J. Freeman, Richard N. Winfield

September 2013

National Endowment for Democracy


This report is intended to be a practical, useful guide for stakeholders in national and local governments, the media, civil society, and business to making freedom of information laws work. The authors’ particular emphasis is on the role public officials and journalists must play in effectively breathing life into these laws, giving meaning to their democratic intent and legal guarantees. Most of the world’s 90-plus freedom of information (FOI) laws are recent, enacted in the last two decades, and many are exemplary on paper. But many are also poorly implemented. Surprisingly but commonly, citizens, national and local public officials, and journalists are often unaware that such laws even exist, much less how they work. Non-governmental organizations and businesses typically make more requests than journalists or citizens, but frequently the total number of requests is far below what might be expected given the scope of FOI laws, which in some developing countries apply not only to government agencies but also to private entities that receive government funds. In countries transitioning from authoritarian pasts, governments retain the habit of working in secrecy, which hobbles democracy and promotes corruption.