This blog is written by Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise. Posts appear Monday & Wednesday.
Freedom of Information (FOI) laws are about accountability. They are a testament to the idea that citizens have a right to know. We are entitled to examine the internal workings of publicly-funded institutions, to peer over the shoulders of people whose salaries we pay. We have a right to see how decisions are made by a wide range of officials – up to, and including, cabinet ministers.
According to a recent academic paper:
In the past two decades freedom of information legislation has moved from being a legislative “luxury” enjoyed by a few advanced democracies to becoming an accepted part of the democratic landscape. Around ninety countries now have access to information regimes in place…states of varying degrees of development, size, and political persuasion have embraced openness and FOI. There is increasing legal recognition from national courts and from international bodies such as the European Court of Human Rights and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights that FOI is a human right. [bold added]
So it’s rather startling to read, amid the comments submitted to a committee investigating the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) last year, that at least one coordinating lead author thinks the IPCC should be an FOI-free zone. (More about the committee here, here, and here.)
According to this person, FOI requests amount to an “attack.” In the view of this person, the IPCC should take a stand. It should declare that FOI requests concerning IPCC scientists are a form of harassment. Here’s the quote in all its glory:
Finally, in some countries, some of the IPCC contributors have come under attack (not just in the media) but through national Freedom of Information (FOI) and Environmental Information Regulations (EIR) Acts. This is really an issue of academic freedom and it is probably beyond this review to tell IPCC (or indeed national governments) what to do about it, but some strong recommendations could be made. In the UK, [lead authors] and [coordinating lead authors] have been asked for emails between the chapter author teams and also for drafts that are between those officially released for review. This is harassment of the scientists involved and if it happens again with AR5, I can see a number of good scientists withdrawing as they do want all the hassle. A clear recommendation from this panel that they believe such action through national FOI/EIR legislation to be harassment would certainly help some respond to these continuing requests. [top of the page numbered 130, page 11 of this PDF]
This person does not explain why it’s OK for every other official to be subject to FOI laws – but not scientists who write IPCC reports. Why in heaven’s name would they alone deserve an exemption? (IPCC work is technically voluntary and unpaid. But the vast majority of those who perform it are employed by publicly-funded academic, research, and government institutions. Employees of such institutions are typically already subject to FOI laws.)
Remarks of this nature could only be made by someone for whom accountability is a foreign concept. This is a mindset that says: “I’ve been tasked with making decisions that could influence trillions in international expenditures, but you have no right to see how I got there.”
I have an alternative proposal for the IPCC. It should confirm that Freedom of Information laws are, in the words of the scholarly article mentioned above, an accepted part of the democratic landscape. It should require everyone involved to sign a statement acknowledging that e-mails and other documents produced in connection with their IPCC responsibilities automatically become part of the historical record.
Anyone who has a problem with full transparency shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near a body as important as the IPCC.
UPDATE Jan. 17:
The names of those who submitted comments to the InterAcademy Council (IAC) were removed by the IAC prior to the release of these documents. The identity of the IPCC coordinating lead author who equates FOI requests with harassment is therefore not known.