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Turning the right to know into a reality

A CARE survey in a mountainous province in northern Vietnam about domestic violence this year showed that a lot of people did not know that violence against others is illegal and that slapping on others’ face is a form of violence.

Important information for farmers such as agricultural market or credit programs was perceived as inadequate and difficult to understand, according to another survey that CARE conducted last year, also in the northern mountainous provinces.

And even for something as fundamental as climate information, it is still a dream of farmers to access comprehensible, timely and down-scaled forecasts so they can apply to their farming.

A lot of evidence is pointing to the fact that people, especially the poor farmers, are suffering from either the lack of quality information or the abundance of information that is full of academic and legal language.

That is why it is important for all of us to be reminded of the International Right to Know Day celebrated annually on 28 September, and of Vietnam’s first law on access to information that was effective on 1st July 2018.

According to the Law, information is defined as news and data which are created by state agencies in the course of performing their functions and duties and contained in available documents, dossiers or materials in the form of handwritten, printed or electronic copy, picture, photo, drawing, tape, disc, or video or audio recording or in other forms. Restriction of access to information will be accepted only when such is provided by a law for the reason of national defense and security, social order and safety, social ethics or community well-being. On the other hand, the exercise of the right of access to information must not infringe upon national interests as well as lawful rights and interests of others.

While it has been only a few months since the Law on Access to Information came into effect, a few localities have taken a step ahead to turn the legal text into reality. Six communes, including two in each province Bac Kan, Cao Bang and Dien Bien, have set up their first information and communication team. With funding from the European Union and technical support from CARE International in Vietnam and members of NorthNet, these teams have boosted their capacity in producing written and audio newsletters for their own communes.

Topics covered include how to grow vegetable organically, which road in the next village has been paved, and what community events are taking place in the near future to results of local people’s committees’ meetings. They will also gather information demands from the villagers via the Village Savings and Loan Associations. During the process, people are given the chance to explore gender stereotypes and gender differences, so that the different needs and challenges of women are addressed in the newsletters and other communication products or channels. (For example, ethnic minority women are less mobile than men, so they are less likely to access the information listed in communal centers). In another word, these communities are taking action to turn the Law on Access to Information and citizens’ right to know into a reality.

People in Muong Phang (Dien Bien) can, among other ways, send their requests for information in this box (left corner). Photo: Giang Vu/CARE

The people needs more access on information that matters to them. We can name a lot of information that matters to our people without even asking. And where we don’t know, it is important that people know they have to right to ask authorities for public information and that the authorities have the obligation to provide such information. That two-way communication is essential for transparent and accountable government, and access to information is the first step for the people to participate in the policy making and implementation processes. Therefore, on this International Right to Know Day, let us congratulate these communes for taking a proactive step in building informed communities. On this day, we also have the right to dream that in the near future, all communities regardless of the presence of a CARE project will have better access to information to improve the life quality for all.