In 1998, Fundacion Terram, an environmental organization, asked the Chilean Committee on Foreign Investment for information on a foreign company seeking to implement a deforestation project that the Committee had approved. Fundacion Terram intended to evaluate the economic, social and environmental aspects of the project, and sought records that the Committee should have collected in its review process (para. 13). The Committee ignored the information requests, Fundacion Terram appealed, and the Chilean Supreme Court declared the appeal inadmissible as manifestly ill-founded (para. 31). Fundacion Terram together with other rights groups submitted a petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which in turn lodged an application against Chile with the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.
The Court for the first time ruled that Article 13 of the American Convention on Human Rights protects the right of access to state-held information, which encompasses the right of individuals to receive information and the state’s positive obligation to provide it, subject to limited exceptions. An individual or entity seeking information is not required to prove direct or personal interest and, once the information is received, is free to circulate it to the public generally (para. 77). Provision of information is governed by the principle of maximum disclosure (para. 92). States are required to adopt a legal framework that gives effect to the right of access, and to reform secrecy laws and practices (para. 163).
A state may restrict access to information only for the reasons permitted by the Convention (para. 77). Any restriction should (1) be established by law, (2) respond to a purpose allowed by Article 13(3) of the Convention, and (3) be necessary in a democratic society (paras. 88-91). The denial of Fundacion Terram’s request did not comply with any of the listed requirements: there was no legislation in Chile that regulated restrictions on access to state-held information and no proper decision was adopted in response to the request (paras. 94-96).
The Court found a violation of Article 13 (freedom of expression), becoming the first international court to recognize a human right of access to information held by public bodies.
More information on the case
Admissibility Decision (Inter-American Commission on Human Rights)
Written comments to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (Open Society Justice Initiative)
Referral of case to the Court (in English)
Written comments to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (Open Society Justice Initiative)
Judgment of the Court (in English)