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Last Updated: Thursday, 24 July, 2003, 15:08 GMT 16:08 UK
Global culture of secrecy

By Clare Murphy
BBC News Online

Britain, with its Official Secrets Act, is not the only country whose establishment is terrified of public scrutiny.

All over the world regimes conspire to keep information secret, either through legislation, dirty tricks or sheer intimidation. The buzzword is invariably "national security".

Mention state secrecy, and Russia and China will still be among the first which spring to most peoples' minds.

"Sars? Never heard of it"

Indeed, over the past 12 months, the two states appear to have done little to shake off that reputation.

The hostage drama which unfolded in a Moscow theatre late last year had the world on the edge of their seats - a world which looked on in horror as the limp bodies emerged of theatre-goers overcome by the deadly gas used by Russian special forces to end the siege by Chechen rebels.

The Russian authorities have refused to reveal the type of gas which was used, citing state security, which some claimed seriously impeded doctors' ability to treat the sick and dying.

The incident recalled the Russian authorities' treatment of the Kursk nuclear submarine disaster two years earlier, in which layers of official fabrication about the fate of the sailors on board was gradually unpicked by relatives.

I used to believe everything the government told me. But now, after Sars, I will weigh everything the government says very carefully, and I'll judge how much of it is true
Chinese Sars victim
For them, the spirit of the highly secretive Soviet Union was still alive and well.

Similarly the response by Chinese authorities to the outbreak of the Sars virus last November was to pretend to its people it had not happened.

Keen to prevent panic both among its own people and all important foreign investors, China effectively turned down a helping hand from the World Health Organisation, which could have helped stem the spread of the disease in the early stages.

Instead, it was four months before it admitted the scale of the outbreak.

Ultimately, far from protecting its status, Beijing appears to have sowed doubts about its authority among its people.

One Sars victim told the BBC, as the disease waned: "I used to believe everything the government told me. But now, after Sars, I will weigh everything the government says very carefully, and I'll judge how much of it is true."

None of your business

But even in countries traditionally seen as beacons of freedom of information, openness is far from guaranteed.

The United States, citing the need for state security in the aftermath of 11 September, has imposed a number of restrictions on access to information.

Most recently, the US Court of Appeals backed the government's decision not to release the names of people it had detained in the months following the attacks.

Hundreds of people were arrested at the end of 2001, most of them held on immigration violations.

We are getting more information, and quite a lot of that information cannot be released because of state security
Swedish justice ministry official
The administration has refused to release their names saying to do so would give "terrorists" a "virtual roadmap" to their investigations.

The coalition of organisations seeking in vain to force the authorities to disclose the information argued they were seriously undermining the most basic principles of justice.

Even in Sweden, which has enjoyed a freedom of information law since the 18th Century, they have not escaped the security fallout of 11 September.

A justice ministry source told BBC News Online: "We probably are holding back more information than we used to. We are getting more information and quite a lot of that information cannot be released because of state security."

Turning the tables

Many other countries are still waiting for anything resembling freedom of information.

Many states in Africa are unaware or hostile to the concept of freedom of information, while Luxembourg and Germany are the only countries in the European Union to be without such legislation.

The chairman of Transparency International in Germany said: "We are campaigning hard, but here there is a long tradition of the government believing it is serving the public interest by keeping things confidential."

But even when legislation is introduced, there are some cautionary tales.

Japan managed to turn freedom of information legislation to its own advantage by creating a database on citizens who had made requests under the recently passed law.

Defence agencies conducted background checks on each person who made a request, and noted their age, occupation, and even their political views.

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