The second part contains other relevant information, such as formal measures that have been proposed or are under discussion or reports of such measures that we have been unable to confirm. This page only tracks information about formal changes, however, and does not contain information on implementation or announcements.
A third part tracks international responses and statements.
Sources for the information on this page include experts from within the FOIAnet and Open Government Partnership communities, as well as supplemental research conducted by the Centre for Law and Democracy. Because this is a rapidly evolving situation, we cannot confirm that the following list is comprehensive, or guarantee that all information is up-to-date and accurate, although we have verified all information to the best of our ability.
Please note that we are longer updating the COVID-19 Tracker, but will keep this page live as a reference.
Page last updated: 23 September 2020
Countries which have Suspended or Altered RTI Obligations
Bangladesh: According to a 15 May news article, the Bangladesh Information Commission went into “total lockdown” in late March and complaint hearings have been put on hold indefinitely. The article also reports that there have been no official government communications clarifying whether or how persons can continue to submit RTI requests. The closure of the Commission’s offices is likely linked to a general closure of most federal government offices, originally from 26 March to 4 April but since extended until 30 May. UPDATE: According to a September news report, during the presentation of the Commission’s annual report, the Chief Information Commissioner reported that complaints were being heard and settled virtually during the pandemic.
Brazil: The President enacted Provisional Measure No. 928 (“medida provisória”) which suspended deadlines to answer RTI requests for those public authorities who are subject to telework or quarantine and whose agents must be in the office to respond to the request, or if the public agent or sector is primarily involved in the COVID-19 response. However, the Supreme Court has issued an injunction which temporarily halts this measure. On 30 April 2020 a plenary of the Supreme Court unanimously endorsed the preliminary decision halting Provisional Measure 928/2020.
Canada (Sub-National): At the sub-national level in Canada, some provinces altered RTI obligations. New Brunswick’s Ombudsman ceased processing complaints and suspended deadlines indefinitely on 17 March. Subsequently, in July, it issued a guidance note stating that under New Brunswick’s 19 March emergency decree, time periods were suspended for proceedings before a court, administrative tribunal or decision maker, and that the Ombudsman interpreted this as applying to RTI deadlines. The Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner for British Columbia has granted permission to public bodies to extend the time to process requests by an additional 30 days for requests received between 1 March 2020 and 30 April 2020; this has been extended through 15 May. Alberta, via a Ministerial Order, increased time limits for responding to requests from 30 to 90 days, for an extension from 30 days to 50 days and for transferring a request to another public body from 15 days to 45 days (UPDATE: The state of emergency ended on 15 June. The order extending timelines lapses 60 days after the state of emergency ends; according to the Service Alberta website the original RTI timelines will be reinstated on 15 August). Per a 20 March decree, Quebec suspended the timeframe in which appeals must normally be brought before the adjudicative division of the Access to Information Commission, with an exception for urgent matters (UPDATE: Per a June 10 decree, Quebec reinstated the original timeframe). Ontario issued a regulation retroactively suspending timelines for any proceedings from 16 March until 14 September. The Ontario Information and Privacy Commissioner has clarified that this order does apply to timelines for initiating appeals or complaints on RTI matters; however, it appears that the Commissioner does not interpret this to permit an extension of the timeframe for responding to RTI requests (see a further discussion of this in the next section).
Colombia: Decree 491 of 2020, which relates to services provided by public authorities generally, also applies to right to information proceedings. The Decree provides that notification and communication of administrative acts shall be done through electronic notice during the health emergency. It also extends timelines for responding to requests submitted or being processed during the health emergency, setting a general deadline of 30 days for administrative requests, but specifying that requests for documents and information must be resolved in 20 days following receipt (the normal period is 10 days). Petitions which require consultation with authorities regarding matters under their charge are permitted 35 days. Exceptionally, authorities may notify requesters they cannot meet these timelines and indicate a reasonable period in which the request will be met, not exceeding twice the relevant timeframe.
On May 20, Colombia extended its health emergency until August 31.
El Salvador: El Salvador has issued an emergency decree which suspends most judicial and administrative procedures. This appears to include procedures and hearings at the Institute for Access to Public Information (IAIP), El Salvador’s independent oversight body for RTI, as well as deadlines for processing requests. A 17 March 2020 press communication from IAIP establishes, among other changes, the suspension of in-person proceedings at the Institute, that any type of document may be received via email and that requests will be processed but failures to process requests or delays may be justified for entities directly impacted by the COVID-19 measures.
The President extended the state of emergency; this extension was suspended by the Supreme Court while the Court considered the President’s authority to extend the declaration without legislative approval. The President then issued a second extension of the emergency through 6 June.
On 1 June, another legislative decree suspended administrative deadlines for a period of 10 days because of Tropical Storm Amanda. On 11 June, with the expiration of this decree and the COVID-19 emergency decrees, IAIP announced that administrative deadlines related to access to information were again in force, both for the processing of requests and for IAIP’s own operations. (A new decree did not include a suspension of deadlines). The announcement also stated that IAIP would resume its own operations, including hearings.
France: An Ordinance dated 25 March 2020 suspends all statutory time limits which expire starting on the 12 March 2020 until one month after the date on which the state of emergency ends.
Guatemala: Congressional Decree 12-2020, dated 31 March 2020, contains a general suspension of administrative deadlines, but explicitly exempts deadlines related to the Law on Access to Public Information from this suspension.
Georgia: Georgia declared a state of emergency on 21 March 2020 lasting until 21 April 2020 via a presidential decree approved by Parliament. The Decree gives the Government the power to set rules which differ from current RTI legislation. The Government, under this power, issued a resolution which suspends the normal timeframes for issuing public information, meaning authorities do not need to comply with RTI deadlines. The state of emergency has been extended through 22 May, which likely means that the suspension of deadlines has been extended as well, although we have not yet confirmed this.
Hungary: According to news sources, under Decree No. 179/2020, issued on 4 May 2020, requests for information cannot be submitted in-person or orally and the period for responding to requests is extended to 45 days (instead of 15 days), which may then be extended one time for another 45 days.
Honduras: Honduras is under a state of emergency declared via Executive Decree. The Decree restricts certain constitutional rights, including the right to freedom of expression. It also orders the suspension of public sector work. In accordance with the Decree, the Honduran RTI oversight body issued a communication stating that all work has stopped through the 12 April (an extension of the time period specified in prior communications). RTI requests may still be received via the electronic portal during this time but will not be processed until staff have returned to work.
Multiple subsequent communications have extended the work suspension, currently through 14 June, although the communications now refer only to the suspension of in-person work. The more recent communications have also added language stating that the electronic system for information requests is active in receiving requests for information related to the COVID-19 emergency, as well as appeals of denials of information, and that public officials will attend to those requests.
A 13 April 2020 communication announced that although, from 16 March to 19 April, the RTI procedures had been considered halted due to the national emergency, authorities had now agreed that public information officers in institutions with obligations under the RTI law and who belong to the national risk management system, as well as those who work in the municipalities and are handling emergency funds, must immediately attend to RTI requests inherent to the COVID-19 emergency.
India: To comply with an order of the Ministry of Home Affairs, the RTI oversight body, the Central Information Commission is closed for a period of 21 days beginning on 25 March 2020, and all Information Commissioners are work-from-home only. All scheduled hearings before the Commission are deferred during this period; for urgent matters, the matter will be heard through audio conference.
Italy: Decree-Law No. 18/2020 of 17 March contains a provision (Article 67(3)) permitting the suspension of all activities related to access to information requests unless they are urgent and cannot be postponed. A statement on the 27 March 2020 indicates that requests for information about the pandemic and health emergency are excluded from the suspension, but Italian RTI experts have indicated that there is still a lack of clarity about whether COVID-19-related requests will be automatically processed.
Moldova: In early April, authorities extended the time permitted for responding to RTI requests from 15 days to 45 days. This decision was made by the Commission for Exceptional Situations, which is coordinating the emergency response. On April 16, the People’s Advocate (Ombudsman), which among other functions is responsible for RTI oversight, called on the Commission for Exceptional Situations to revoke the tripled deadline, arguing it is unconstitutional. The People’s Advocate itself is continuing its work during COVID-19, although under a flexible work programme, and is asking citizens to use phone, email, and online petitions to contact them.
The time extension apparently ended with the expiration of the state of emergency on 15 May; while another decision initiated an emergency state in the public health sector on 16 May, this is governed by a distinct legal regime, and there is no indication it included a new deadline extension.
Mexico: The National Institute for Transparency (INAI) issued a resolution to suspend deadlines for information requests from 23 March to 17 April. This period of suspension has been extended until 30 April. In the statement extending the suspension, INAI’s Commission President said this was a necessary step during the public health emergency. He noted that INAI had received comments from civil society requesting that INAI not extend the suspension of time limits, and that INAI would open a dialogue with these civil society organisations.
On 1 May, an INAI communication announced that the suspension of deadlines was lifted for institutions with activities considered essential by the health authority, while for those whose activities are non-essential, the deadline suspension was extended until 30 May.
Panama: A communication from the National Authority for Transparency and Access to Information, on 16 March 2020, announced that the Authority’s institutional e-mail was now available to the public for submitting RTI complaints. On the 24 March 2020, Executive Decree No. 507 of 2020 provided for the suspension of administrative procedure deadlines; on 28 March 2020, ANTAI communicated that in accordance with the decree, administrative processes under its own ambit were suspended, although complaints, petitions and other inquiries would still be received via email. In an 8 June 2020 communication, ANTAI announced the lifting of the suspension of deadlines. It also specified that complaints could still be sent via email, but that staff would also be available in-person three mornings a week.
Philippines: As of 16 March 2020, the President’s Office has suspended the normal 15-day period for resolving RTI requests until 13 April 2020. This has been extended until 4 May 2020. UPDATE: An advisory on 29 April provides that on 4 May, the suspension is further extended for offices under the category of “Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ)” until the ECQ is lifted and “work in the Executive branch of the government attained normalcy.” However, the suspension of deadlines is lifted as of 4 May for authorities in the executive branch whose principle location is under the area under “General Community Quarantine (GCQ)”. If an area under GCQ is again declared to be under ECQ, the suspension of deadlines will be in force again. An advisory on 1 June further extended the suspension of deadlines for offices under ECQ or a modified ECQ (MECQ) and lists regions falling under this categories.
Poland: Polish news sources (and an English version) indicate that deadlines for responding to right to information requests are suspended. Other sources (here and here) indicate that the package of amendments responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, termed the “anti-crisis shield”, generally suspends a number of administrative proceeding deadlines, so this is possibly the legal basis for the suspension of the right to information timelines. On 16 May 2020, the Anti-Crisis Shield 3.0 Act came into effect. According to sources here and here, the Act stipulated that any administrative and procedural time limits suspended under previous COVID-19 legislation would begin to run 7 days following the date Shield 3.0 entered into force.
Romania: The presidential decree enacting a state of emergency specifically provides that during the state of emergency the deadline for processing and replying to RTI requests will double (meaning 20 days instead of the regular 10 days, 60 days instead of the 30 allowed on an exceptional basis and 48 hours instead of 24 hours for the special time limit for requests from journalists).
Serbia: Serbia is under a state of emergency. Although RTI is on the list of rights which may be restricted during an emergency, executive decrees have not yet limited RTI. The information commissioner issued a public statement explaining that the right to access information is still valid but asking for patience if response times are slower than usual. UPDATE: According to this source dated 6 April 2020, the government has now extended deadlines to respond to requests so that authorities will have 30 days to respond once the state of emergency has been lifted. UPDATE 2: The Serbian parliament lifted the state of emergency on 6 May, presumably giving authorities 30 days from that date to respond to requests.
Slovenia: This source from 25 March 2020 cites to a law (in Slovenian) which suspended time limits in administrative matters generally, and indicates this suspension included deadlines under the Public Information Access Act. It appears deadlines began running again on 1 June 2020 (based on an automatic translation; we have not confirmed this with a Slovenian speaker or English source).
Spain: Royal Decree 463/2020 establishes a state of emergency. It also suspends deadlines generally for procedures of public sector entities. Based on this provision, the Transparency Council, which is the RTI oversight body, has issued a notice that processing of files may be delayed, but that they will continue to work to meet the demands of citizens. On 17 April 2020, another government Note also confirmed the applicability of the general suspension of deadlines to RTI matters, and supplied greater detail on how the suspension will apply.
United Kingdom: Appeals from decisions by the Information Commissioner, which are handled by the First-Tier Tribunal (General Regulatory Chamber), are stayed for a period of 28 days as of 1 April 2020. Deadlines associated with those procedures are also extended. This stay has been extended until 27 May.
There are also reports that the Information Commissioner is delaying decision notices, although there does not appear to be a formal policy governing this. The Information Commissioner’s Office released a statement describing its approach to the pandemic, which is discussed in the next section.
United Kingdom (Scotland): On 1 April 2020, Scotland passed the Coronavirus (Scotland) Act. The Act permitted time extensions for responding to requests (primarily extending 20 days to 60 days) and, under certain circumstances, permitted additional public authorities to make decisions on time extensions. It also allowed the Information Commissioner to determine that an authority who failed to provide information had not failed to comply with its obligations if the failure was a result of the impact of coronavirus and was reasonable in all the circumstances. The Act also allowed electronic notice. Scotland’s Information Commissioner subsequently launched a “COVID-19 and FOI” information hub which includes information on making requests during the pandemic and gives guidance to public authorities on the new legal provisions.
UPDATE: On 20 May, Scotland’s Parliament amended the original Coronavirus (Scotland) Act, removing the time extensions for responding to requests and most other RTI provisions. The only components retained were the provision permitting electronic notice and the provision allowing the Information Commissioner to take account of the impact of coronavirus in deciding whether an authority had failed to meet RTI obligations. However, this second provision was also amended to require that the Commissioner, in assessing whether the failure was reasonable, must have regard for the “public interest”. Furthermore, the amendment imposes an additional requirement that the Scottish Ministers regularly report to Parliament on RTI for as long as the RTI provisions of the Coronavirus (Scotland) Act remain in force. The report must include specified information such as backlogs, number of requests responded to and subject to internal review, number of appeals, etc.
United States (sub-national): Information about actions taken by various states can be found on this spreadsheet compiled by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and this searchable table from Muckrock which tracks state-level changes to transparency laws.
Executive orders issued in Connecticut, Delaware, Indiana, Michigan, Rhode Island, and Washington have extended or suspended statutory timeframes for responding to records requests. (UPDATE: Michigan lifted the extension on June 11; a court had previously upheld the order). In Maryland, public authorities can suspend legal deadlines under a gubernatorial order; some departments have used this authority to suspend the processing of public records. Washington D.C. added “days of a COVID-19 closure” to the list of days (such as holidays and weekends) which are not counted toward the timeframe in which requests must be answered. The state legislature of New Jersey passed legislation that eliminated the prior 7-day time limit for municipalities and other public bodies to respond to requests.
Hawaii has entirely suspended its RTI law, the Uniform Information Practices Act, via a Supplementary Proclamation by the Governor dated 16 March 2020. On June 10, a ninth supplementary emergency proclamation announced the suspension will last until 31 July 2020; this proclamation also adds guidance for agencies, stating that they must acknowledge receipt of records requests, should prioritize requests made in the public interest, and respond to requests as resources permit.
Additional Information on RTI Laws during COVID-19
Argentina: A Decree on 19 March 2020 suspended deadlines for administrative procedures generally until the 31 March. This was then extended by subsequent decrees through the 26 April. However, the Access to Public Information Agency, Argentina’s RTI oversight body, issued Resolution 70/2020 on the 14 April. This Resolution states that the suspension of deadlines does not apply to the procedures established under the right to information law. In announcing this decision, the Resolution notes that although the right to information may be suspended in exceptional circumstances, the State has not done so, and the right therefore remains in full force. This necessitates an exception to the general suspension of deadlines. The Resolution cites to international standards on the importance of the right to information during public health emergencies and stresses that access to information is indispensable for the public to understand the actions taken by public authorities during an emergency and to avoid arbitrary public decision-making.
Armenia: Armenia is considering a change to its right to information law which would add an exception for information that would negatively harm the environment. Civil society has criticized this as an unclear exception and broader than earlier versions which focused on information on breeding sites for endangered species. This source implies that the introduction of the new language on 2 April 2020 took advantage of the COVID-19 crisis to propose the change.
According to an article by the Freedom of Information Center of Armenia, RTI responses have not been compliant with legislated timelines during the pandemic.
Australia: Australia has not suspended or altered RTI obligations at the moment. Instead the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner has directed agencies to request time extensions on a case-by-case basis under the framework of the existing RTI law. A 5 May posting reaffirmed this policy and links to “frequently asked questions” for requesters about submitting RTI requests during the COVID-19 outbreak.
Bulgaria: Bulgaria has declared a state of emergency and adopted a law on emergency measures which enables the Minister of Health to issue decrees on any urgent matters. However, at the moment it appears these have not targeted RTI obligations. The National Health Insurance Fund reportedly extended deadlines for responding to RTI requests, but upon objections from civil society that there was no legal basis for this, the order in question was rescinded. Problematic amendments to the RTI law had been proposed before the state of emergency, but these are now on hold.
Canada: The Canadian Information Commissioner issued a statement on 20 March 2020 confirming that the Commissioner’s office will continue to receive and process complaints. In addition, the statement clarified that the Commissioner is unable to extend statutory deadlines under the Access to Information Act, but will be “as flexible as reasonably possible with our investigation timelines.” Another statement issued on 2 April reiterated the importance of transparency and access to information during the crisis and called for heads of federal institutions to provide “clear direction and updating guidance” on information management. The Commissioner also wrote to the Treasury Board requesting adequate resources for handling the expected surge of requests and COVID-19 related delays.
At the sub-national level, Newfoundland and Labrador has provided a detailed FAQ for public authorities on processing requests during COVID-19; it generally instructs that authorities should request extensions if unable to fulfil requests. The Yukon Information and Privacy Commissioner issued a statement affirming the applicability of the RTI law while offering guidance on how public bodies can respond to RTI requests during the pandemic. Nova Scotia, Manitoba, Nunavut and Ontario all have varying statements on RTI websites about possible delays (UPDATE: Nunavut’s notice has been removed as of August 2020); Ontario’s, as of 25 March, does clarify that the expectation to comply with the RTI law remains but that the Commissioner will consider the circumstances when reviewing appeals. The website of Manitoba’s Ombudsman also has guidance for public bodies on requesting extensions of time limits during the pandemic within the bounds of the existing RTI law. What generic drugs are available. The Northwest Territories also had a notification of possible delays but this was replaced by an announcement that the offices would be re-opened on 4 August 2020, although access would be limited in accordance with physical distancing requirements.
Dominican Republic: Decree 137-20 suspends, for the duration of the state of emergency, the computation of deadlines and terms for administrative procedures. We have not found sources confirming whether and how this applies to RTI procedures. However, a news article from the 27 May 2020 indicated that journalists were not able to submit a request at the Ministry of Health by letter. They were told that physical requests could not be received, and requests must be made through the online portal instead. The State of Emergency is set to expire on 30 June.
India: A detailed report from Satark Nagrik Sangathan and the Centre for Equity Studies assesses the functioning of Information Commissioners across India at the national and sub-national level. It finds that as of 15 May 2020, only eight out of the 29 Information Commissioners (the Central Information Commission and seven state commissions) were holding hearings and disposing of cases. Eleven state commissions had no information on their website regarding their functioning during the lockdown (for three of these, the entire website was not available). Two state commissions had no commissioner, as the commissioner had retired during the lockdown period and new appointments had not been made. An additional four commissions were functioning without a chief commissioner from before the pandemic began.
Ireland: A statement on Ireland’s FOI portal affirms that authorities must still comply with the terms of the Freedom of Information Act, which does not permit for extending timeframes or otherwise limiting obligations on the ground of office closures due to health and safety. The statement also underscores that websites should be updated to clarify potential disruptions to FOI service due to reduced staffing or closures and to redirect requesters towards online channels. However, within the current law, it notes that arguably requests delivered by post may not be properly “received” within the meaning of the law while offices are closed, and that in interpreting the requirement to carry out a “reasonable” search for records, it may be necessary for authorities to consider the lack of access to physical records. While the official policy therefore remains continued RTI services under current law, this news article suggests that some journalists have been asked to withdraw RTI requests and that the Department of Social Protection has placed new FOI requests on hold.
Kenya: Under Kenya’s RTI law, the RTI oversight body is the Commission on Administration of Justice. Per an email to CLD from the Commission’s staff, working hours for staff have been reduced as a result of national health guidelines, but the Commission is still receiving requests through online platforms and letters.
Malawi: Malawi’s Access to Information Act, 2016 (which was published in 2017) has not yet been operationalised. The Minister of Information, Civic Education and Communications Technology, quoted in a 3 May 2020 news article, said that a last meeting needed to operationalise the law is delayed until “the coronavirus situation calms down.” The civil society organisation MISA Malawi has called for the Minister to set a date for the commencement of implementation of the Act.
Maldives: A 4 June article reported that the Office of the Information Commissioner was calling on state authorities to disclose information without delays, stating that “disclosure of information was an important part of the essential operations of the government which is set to recommence on June 11”. The language of the article suggests that RTI processes had not been fully operational during the pandemic, but this is not clear.
Montenegro: A coalition of Montenegrin and international NGOs have called upon the Ministry of Public Administration to postpone public consultations on proposed reforms to the Law on Free Access to Information. The consultation deadline is 4 April. Given COVID-19 restrictions, meaningful consultation on the amendments cannot occur, raising concerns over amendments which will restrict the right to information being pushed through under the cover of the pandemic. Read more here and here. UPDATE: The Ministry of Public Administration extended the public consultation to allow suggestions to be emailed for an additional 10 days.
New Zealand: The Chief Ombudsman, as the RTI oversight body, has stated that his office will continue to receive complaints, although he explained that he “will be taking extenuating circumstances into account when deciding how to deal with complaints about delays or extensions of the timeframes for responses to requests.” He also encouraged public authorities to communicate clearly to the public about the impacts of the COVID-19 emergency on their ability to process requests and to communicate with individual requesters should unavoidable delays arise.
On 15 April, the Ombudsman shared a detailed “frequently asked questions” document with guidance for agencies and requesters on RTI during the COVID-19 emergency. For example, the guide notes that a simple reference to “the COVID-19 emergency” is not sufficient to justify extending the timeframe for responding to requests under New Zealand’s RTI law, which requires that the delay is linked to searching a large volume of information or undertaking consultations.
Nigeria: Nigeria’s Federal Office of the Accountant-General released a Framework for the Management of COVID-19 Funds in Nigeria under the Treasury Single Account in May. It specifies that all Ministries, Departments and Agencies must provide information on COVID-19 Fund transactions under the Freedom of Information Act within seven days of receiving the request (which is in line with the existing timeline under Nigeria’s Freedom of Information Act). Failure to do so, or meet additional proactive disclosure requirements included in the Framework, may constitute “early warning signs of mismanagement”. Failure to abide by the Framework can result in sanctions preventing continued participation in the fund programme or the publication of the names of officials involved.
North Macedonia: This source reports that some civil society organisations were concerned about a suspension of right to information deadlines under the 23 March Law on Public and Administrative Procedures, which states that all administrative procedure deadlines are frozen during the state of emergency. However, it appears that public authorities have interpreted this provision so as not to apply to freedom of information requests, and as of 24 April, no ministry had said it would suspend deadlines for right to information procedures. This article reports that the state of emergency ended on 13 June.
Pakistan: The Pakistan Information Commission, in an announcement on its website and on Twitter, states that from 24 March 2020 onward, all cases scheduled for hearing are postponed, but the Commission will continue to receive new applications. Although we did not identify a formal announcement that hearings had been resumed, the website notice was removed as of August 2020.
Sierra Leone: In a news posting on the website of the Right to Access Information Commissioner, the Commissioner calls on public authorities to provide access to COVID-19 related information and to “follow the established channels to access such information” (although this is directed at the public as well as public authorities).
Switzerland: Switzerland’s RTI law establishes an arbitration procedure with the Federal Data Protection and Information Commissioner as the external mechanism for handling objections to an authority’s RTI decision. Per the Commissioner’s website, due to COVID-19, many employees are working from home but the Commissioner will endeavour to continue normal operations. The Commissioner will not hold arbitration meetings currently, but will “examine the requests for arbitration received and, until further notice, will issue his recommendations by written procedure.” The notice on the website has since been removed (noted by CLD on 10 July).
Trinidad and Tobago: The RTI oversight body is the Office of the Ombudsman. A public notice from the Ombudsman dated 19 March 2020 urged people to lodge complaints via email, mail, fax or in person using drop-off boxes at office locations. The Office was closed from 31 March via a subsequent announcement, extended through 15 May with a note that persons could continue to access services via email. A 4 June announcement stated complaints could be submitted via email, via post or using drop-off boxes.
United Kingdom: The Information Commissioner’s Office, on 15 April 2020, released a statement describing the ICO’s regulatory approach during the public health emergency. It states that the ICO will continue to take new RTI complaints and will take a “pragmatic” approach to resolving complaints which will minimise engagement with public authorities and be governed by the authorities themselves in terms of their ability to respond to the ICO’s requests. The ICO also recognises that there may be “extreme circumstances” where public authorities must temporarily reduce or suspend elements of RTI. The statement encourages authorities to proactively publish information and emphasises the need for proper record keeping.
On 17 July 2020, the ICO announced an online toolkit to help authorities self-assess their RTI performance. Although the toolkit is not specific to the COVID-19 pandemic, the ICO noted that they “expect organisations to start putting clear plans in place to get back on track with their freedom of information work” and that the toolkit will aid them in doing so.
United States: Several resources are tracking the FOIA policies adopted by various federal agencies during the pandemic, including this spreadsheet from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and this COVID-19 Resource page from the National Freedom of Information Coalition. The Congressional Research Service also produced a report on FOIA processing changes due to COVID-19 on 27 March 2020. In April, the Department of Justice’s Office of Information Policy (OIP) hosted a best-practices workshop that focused on the importance of using technology to communicate with requesters and to support FOIA professionals working remotely. On 4 May 2020, a bi-partisan group of senators sent a letter to the OIP, asking for the agency’s guidance on how federal agencies should comply with the Freedom of Information Act during COVID. The senators asked for a response by 29 May 2020.
On 28 May 2020, the Justice Department’s Office of Information Policy released guidance on responding to FOIA requests during COVID-19. The guidance clarifies that agencies’ legal obligations under the Freedom of Information Act remain, but notes that the Act permits an agency to take an additional 10 working days to respond to requests where the standard for “unusual circumstances” is met.
African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights: In a 24 March 2020 press release on a human rights based response to COVID-19, the Commission “urges the legal necessity” for States to ensure access to information and notes that in times of public health emergency, the public has a right “to receive factual, regular, intelligible and science-based information on the threat COVID19 poses” as well as measures taken to respond to the virus.
Council of Europe: The Council of Europe has a 7 April 2020 “toolkit” for member States on “Respecting democracy, rule of law and human rights in the framework of the COVID-19 sanitary crisis”. Section 3.3 includes a discussion of freedom of expression and access to information. It stresses that the “public’s access to official information must be managed on the basis of the existing principles set down in the Court’s caselaw” (meaning the European Court of Human Rights). It notes that restrictions on access to official information “must be exceptional and proportionate to the aim of protecting public health” and cites to the Tromsø Convention on the importance of transparency by public authorities.
International Conference of Information Commissioners (ICIC): On 14 April, the ICIC issued a statement on the right to information in the context of the pandemic. It is available here and the announcement about the statement is available here. A subsequent joint statement on 4 May called for strong records management practices during the pandemic.
International Experts on Freedom of Expression: The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media and the IACHR Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression released a joint statement on the importance of access to information during the COVID-19 pandemic on 19 March 2020. The statement notes that “broad restrictions on access to the internet cannot be justified on public order or national security grounds” and urges “all governments to robustly implement their freedom of information laws to ensure that all individuals, especially journalists, have access to information.”
Inter-American Commission on Human Rights: The IACHR issued Resolution 1/2020 on the pandemic and human rights in the Americas on 10 April 2020 (so far, only available in Spanish). It calls, at paragraph 32, for protection of the right to access information and states that RTI should not be subject to general limitations on security or public order grounds. Priority should be given to information requests related to the public health emergency. For information not relating to the pandemic, if deadlines are postponed, States must justify refusals to provide information, establish time frames for complying with RTI obligations and permit appeals. There should also be proactive disclosure of information about the impacts of the pandemic and emergency measures taken, in a format that is open and accessible to vulnerable persons, and disaggregated according to international practices.
UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression: In a report on “Disease pandemics and the freedom of opinion and expression”, the Special Rapporteur spends several paragraphs discussing access to information. He notes that, during a pandemic, resource constraints may interfere with the capacity of some governments to meet their RTI obligations. “To a certain extent, temporary disruptions may be expected” and may not constitute a violation of Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. However, “such disruptions should only take place when necessary for public health and should not be an excuse for failing to carry out activities for which there is no limited-capacity justification.” Governments should also develop solutions that enable access to information as the crisis continues.