February 1, 2000
Access to information is vital to democracy
You have constantly championed the need for greater access to information as an essential component of democracy. Some recent developments in the world around us have heightened my appreciation of the crucial bond between these two phenomena.
In early December, the demonstrations in Seattle around the World Trade Organisation were a case in point. An editorial in The New York Times (Dec. 6) made this quite clear. "Perhaps the most important of the three reforms pushed by Mr. Clinton was a call to have the WTO open up its judicial panels to public scrutiny and, where feasible, to wider participation. The organisation's secretive ways bred distrust and conspiracy fears among government and advocacy groups." The demonstrations were more about access to information than about the substance of policies. People wanted to know.
Other countries are trying to control this new channel. In China, for example, the government is seeking to exercise central control over this profoundly diffuse technology. It has recently made each person responsible for whatever he or she puts on the Internet and there are severe penalties for exposing 'state secrets'. Of course, it was the Internet that the Falun Gong used to organise their remarkable protest and caught the near-omniscient communist government by complete surprise. The government has reason to be concerned. The growth of the Internet in China is truly incredible: it exploded from two million terminals in 1998 to nine million in 1999. Since many of these terminals are in cafes, the number of users is far greater.
Sadly, none of these technological advancements has affected our process of government. Steeped in a bizarre tradition of control - of withholding or manipulating information - our polity places no credibility on any official statistic. For a full generation we have been socialised to distrust any figure from a public source, including our population. There is no prospect of meaningful engagement in discourse so long as this persists.
But perhaps this is precisely what our government want: public disengagement that leaves them free to be arbitrary and insulated from accountability. That is an error we must never make. We must be constantly vigilant and continue to demand access to public information. It is our main shield against corruption. We must never let up.