The Constitution Unit


Monthly Update: June 2011

Freedom of Information in the UK

Leicester City Council and zombies

The Freedom of Information Act has received much attention thanks to a 'concerned citizen' who asked about Leicester City Council's preparedness for a zombie attack.

"Having watched several films it is clear that preparation for such an event is poor and one that councils throughout the kingdom must prepare for," wrote the requester, who The Leicester Mercury identifies as 26-year-old politics graduate James Dixon.

The Council said there were no specific references to zombies in their contingency plans. Lynn Wyeth, Head of information governance, spoke to local radio and the BBC about the request, saying that though it made her laugh, "to different people it actually means something."

On Saturday, Leicester was filled with people dressed as zombies mimicking an attack, and copycat requesters have already jumped on the new fad. According to WhatDoTheyKnow.com, nine other individuals sent requests about zombies to their local authorities and the BBC. Most of them are still pending.

Cabinet Office, Ministry of Defence found to be slow on FOI

The Cabinet Office, the Ministry of Defence and Birmingham city council have agreed to reply to Freedom of Information requests more quickly after the Information Commissioner's Office threatened regulatory action.

This follows a three-month exercise in which the ICO evaluated the performance of 33 authorities when responding to FOI requests, after receiving complaints.

Councils Hammersmith and Fulham, Islington, Westminster and Wolverhampton have already agreed with the ICO evaluation and have promised to improve.

Chris Ames writes about his experience with requests to the Cabinet Office regarding the 'dodgy dossier' - and his take on the ICO's regulatory action - in a blog post here.


Isle of Man

Implementing FOI in the Isle of Man will cost £1 million, which is too high a price to pay, according to its Chief Minister Tony Brown.

Brown has based this figure on administrative FOI costs estimated for Jersey, whose own FOI legislation was passed earlier in the year.

A bill to implement an FOI regime in the Isle of Man - with similar features as the UK legislation - has had its first reading, but there is a general election scheduled for September, leaving any further progression to the incoming administration.


European Parliament

The European Parliament will permit access to a controversial report on allowances paid to parliamentarians after the General Court of the European Union ruled there was an 'overriding public interest' in its disclosure.

The Galvin Report, a 2006 audit of the Parliamentary Assistance Allowance was leaked in 2009, but only the outline of abuses of the system were revealed, with details of MEP's actual claims remaining hidden.

Irish lawyer Ciaran Toland sought access to the Galvin Report, but it was withheld on the grounds that premature disclosure would 'seriously undermine' decision-making, leading Toland to bring a legal case against the European Parliament in October 2008. The General Court disagreed with the decision to withhold.

The ruling is likely to guarantee more transparency within the institution, Toland said. "This case has now established new rights of access to a wide range of documents by both citizens and the media. In particular, an institution will not be able to claim that political controversy is a ground to refuse access," he said.

The report will likely cause discontent among EU member countries that are being persuaded to accept tough austerity measures, wrote The Independent .

The European Union has a right of access to documents enshrined in the Community Treaty. Title II, art. 15(3) [3], provides that: "Any citizen of the Union, and any natural or legal person residing or having its registered office in a Member State, shall have a right of access to European Parliament, Council and Commission documents."

Further links: The Constitution Unit's research on FOI and Parliament.




After a pledge to rapidly enact a Freedom of Information law, Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff has backed off amid pressure from the Senate.

According to Greg Michener, a Freedom of Information expert based in Brazil, Rousseff had initially said she would enact an access to information law on World Press Freedom Day, coinciding with President Barack Obama's visit and his invitation for Brazil to co-chair the Open Government Partnership.

Brazil's constitution states that 'everyone shall have the right to receive information of his own interest or of public interest from public entities, which shall be given within the time prescribed by law.' There are, however, provisions that allow for certain public information to remain secret in perpetuity. The proposed changes intend to make this information accessible to the public.

Changes in the law would also help the government to establish a Truth Commission to examine human rights abuses during Brazil's military government from 1963-1985. According to Michener, Brazil's armed forces have so far vetoed attempts to bring out the archives from that period.

The main pressure from the Senate comes from its president, Jose Sarney, and Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Fernando Collor. Sarney was the first civilian president to take power after the fall of the military regime in 1985. Collor was president between 1992 and 1994 and was impeached on charges of corruption.

According to Michener's article in the Christian Science Monitor, the average Brazilian spends half a year's work on taxes - more than any other country on the hemisphere - yet they have no way of knowing where that money is allocated. An FOI law may help change that.


Nearly 25,000 pages worth of emails from vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin have been released three years after Freedom of Information requests were filed.

The e-mails, which span the period in which she was governor of Alaska, did not provide much new, or entertaining information about Palin, who is now flirting with the idea of running for president.

The emails spanning Palin's first two years as governor were requested during the 2008 election when she was Senator John McCain's presidential running mate.

Almost 2,300 pages were withheld due to data protection issues.

South Africa

The ruling African National Congress party has conceded in limiting the scope and sanctions relating to a controversial bill to protect government information, amid resistance from opposition parties and freedom of information advocates.

The Protection of Information bill, which may be discussed in the second week of the new parliamentary session starting July 22, proposes a rules to classify and protect sensitive state information.

The ANC's proposed bill originally applied to "all organs of state," which opponents said could mean more than 1,000 public entities would be able to classify sensitive information. It had also proposed harsh jail sentences for those who do not comply with the law.

Towards the end of this month, the ANC has backtracked, limiting the application to security services and agreed to remove the current minimum jail sentences without the option of a fine for those who disclose classified information, except if espionage is concerned.


Nigeria has a Freedom of Information law, after President Goodluck Jonathan signed the bill on 28 May, shortly after he took office.

Some of the provisions of the law:

  • Right of access to information held by public institutions, irrespective of the form in which it is kept, is guaranteed.
  • Private institutions are included if they use public funds, perform public functions or provide public services.
  • All institutions must disclose basic information about their structure and processes proactively. The law mandates they be adequately equipped to comply with the provisions of the Act.
  • Protection for whistleblowers is provided.
  • All exemptions are subject to a public interest test.
  • All institutions covered must provide an annual report to the Federal Attorney General's office - which will oversee the implementation of the law. This body will then make them available to the National Assembly and the public.
  • The Federal Attorney-General must report on its duty as overseer to the Parliament once a year.

A Nigerian FOI bill has been in the works since 1999. In 2007, it was passed by both chambers but vetoed by President Olusegun Obasanjo.




Morocco's King Mohammed VI unveiled a plan for a new constitution with a provision guaranteeing freedom of information as a right.

Said Essoulami, director of the Centre for Media Freedom in the Middle East and North Africa (CMF MENA) was quoted in FreedomInfo.org saying the provision will open the door for an FOI law in the future.


The king detailed reforms that would boost the power of the prime minister and take away some of his own, following protests calling for a parliamentary monarchy such as that of Spain and Britain, reported CNN .

The draft constitution is set for a national vote 1 July and will allow the public - instead of the king - to select a prime minister. The prime minister will be able to dissolve the House of Representatives, but the king will still be 'supreme commander' of the armed forces and will still be able to appoint ambassadors and diplomats.

Here is an unofficial translation of Article 27 in the draft of the constitution from FreedomInfo.org:

Citizens have the right to access information held by public authorities, elected institutions and bodies invested with a public service. The right to information can be restricted by law, in order to protect national defense, internal and external security of the state, the privacy of individuals, the prevention of infringements on the rights and freedoms enshrined in this Constitution and to protect sources and areas specifically determined by law.


The Asian country has adopted a law on Information Transparency and Freedom of Information, which will come into effect on 1 December 2011.

The passage of the law came on June 15, the same day US president Barak Obama met with Mongolian president Tsakhia Elbegdorj.


A Freedom of Information bill has been drafted for post-revolutionary Egypt, according to Egyptian newspaper AlMasry AlYoum .

The current draft is being considered at the cabinet's Information and Decision Support Centre (IDSC) together with a group of human rights advocates, academics and journalists.

While advocates are optimistic that the bill will be accepted by the ruling military council, they are cautiously so.

The military government assumed power as long-time leader Hosni Mubarak was ousted by a popular revolution in January, and has held a constitutional referendum to push through democratic reforms, including limiting the terms a president can serve.

The bill may not be accepted by the cabinet and the ruling military council in its current form, according to Ahmad Ezzat, a lawyer at the Law Unit of the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, an independent NGO.

"The state still treats information like arms and explosives, from the highest-ranking employee to the lowest. It's a long-standing heritage that can only change if there is a true political will," he told the newspaper.

A freedom of information law may help Egypt receive funds from organisations such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, the newspaper mentions. Egypt incurred large economic losses during the unrest in January.

The draft law that Egypt is considering has been written by Toby Mendel, an expert on information legislation, president of the Centre for Law and Democracy in the US and a consultant for the World Bank.