Stories of Alaveteli: what has been revealed through FOI sites around the world? Part 1

There are now Freedom of Information websites running on our Alaveteli software in 25 jurisdictions worldwide, which between them have processed more than 330,000 FOI requests.

But what sort of information is being revealed through these sites? And what impact has this information had? In our new series of posts, we’ll be giving you a roundup of some of the most interesting and impactful requests made on Alaveteli sites from across the world.

To kick off, here are the stories of two interesting requests; one from Australia’s Alaveteli site RightToKnow and one from Ukrainian site Dostup do Pravdy:

The Australian government ignored its own advertising rules

Documents uncovered by an FOI request made on RightToKnow reveal that, in 2013, the Rudd government in Australia went against their own advertising rules to spend millions on the controversial ‘By boat, no visa’ campaign.

In July 2013 the then Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced that any asylum seekers arriving in Australia by boat would be taken to Papua New Guinea (PNG) for processing. If found to be refugees, they would be settled in PNG, not in Australia.

This sparked a massive advertising campaign by the government, including full-page advertisements in major Australian metro dailies and ads on commercial radio stations. The newspaper adverts showed a photo of a lone fishing boat at sea stamped with the text “You Won’t Be Settled in Australia”. The advertisements cost Australian taxpayers $2.7 million in the first week alone and $6.5 million in total.

The campaign, known as “By boat, no visa”, was roundly condemned, many seeing it as a cynical misuse of public funds to gain political advantage ahead of the forthcoming general election, rather than meeting the genuine information needs of citizens.

In Rudd’s first term, his government had set up the Independent Communications Committee (ICC) to ensure that government advertising campaigns worth more than $250,000 followed guidelines; including the need for evidence, cost-effectiveness and relevance to target audiences.

On this occasion, however, despite the government budgeting $30 million for the campaign, the ICC did not scrutinise the advertisements, as “extreme urgency” was cited, allowing them to bypass the ICC processes.

Thanks to a FOI request on RightToKnow and nearly a year later, the Department of Immigration finally released documents revealing that the controversial advertising campaign was developed and approved in less than a day. The documents clearly show how the Department of Immigration bypassed the ICC guidelines set up by its own government.

Without the hard work and determination of this FOI requestor this information may never have surfaced.

And remember, you can also make requests for documents from Australian authorities, as under Australian FOI laws, any person, of any nationality, anywhere in the world, can make requests.

You can read the full article about this story, written by the requestor, here.

How freedom of information helped Kiev access culture — for free

Many cities have set days or times of the week when museums are free to visit. And in most cases, it’s easy to find those times out, by checking the museums’ websites or tourist board information.

But for some reason, despite the municipal museums of Kiev running such a scheme, the actual timings were not publicised.

After a request on the Ukranian Alaveteli site Dostup do Pravdy, the schedule is now available for everyone to see, for the first time. The response also revealed that school-age children and students can attend theatres and municipal museums for free, on prior arrangement.

This information has been very difficult to find until now, as it hasn’t been published before. This request and its response was picked up and published by one of the most popular media outlets in Ukraine, meaning that many more people now know when they can visit Kiev’s cultural sites for free. We are sure that Kiev’s residents and visitors are making use of these rights!

As these two stories show, Freedom of Information can be used to access a wide range of information. We often think of FOI as a tool for journalists or activists, and indeed the Australian example shows a classic example of corruption being uncovered.

But the story from Ukraine shows that FOI can also be used for less radical purposes, which nonetheless provide a small improvement to the lives of thousands of citizens.

In part 2 of this series, we’ll be looking at some more examples of how FOI has been used to uncover injustice, in Hungary and Europe.

Update: Part Two of this blog post series is now available here.

Image: The Museum of The History of Ukraine in World War II in Kiev, Bert Kaufmann, (CC). After a FOI request, Kiev residents now know when they can access Kiev’s museums for free.