We need a Freedom Of Information Act

Stabroek News
August 15, 2001

Dear Editor,

Not that Guyana needed the Sweden-based Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) or the CARICOM Audit Commission to finally confirm the already known fact of who won the March 19, last, general elections, but the recent releases are welcome anyway.

With that said, it is now hoped that this revived experience of democracy now being enjoyed in Guyana is not confined to the electoral process, but is broadened to include the opening up all government and public institutions for voters/taxpayers to know what is happening, so that when the time comes for meaningful participation in socio-economic development or defending Guyana's sovereignty, the public's decision-making process will be easier and quicker.

As a former media practitioner in Guyana, I experienced great difficulty and deep frustration whenever I attempted to obtain information to convert to news. Particularly since the PNC Government controlled almost everything, in a "closed society", giving out information only on a need-to-know basis.

Most other media practitioners could attest to being forced to settle for press releases and briefings, speeches by government functionaries and public figures, road accidents, court cases, and criminal incidents. Investigative reporting was forbidden or, at least, not encouraged.

Upon reading my former GBC colleague, Roger Moore's letter, [ please note: link provided by LOSP web site ] "A fair judiciary is an important part of good governance," (SN 08-10-01) it dawned on me that the free flow of public information and the right to public expression remain a dream despite strident efforts at opening up Guyana's news systems.

I admit I am not familiar with Mr. Moore's case in point, but judging from Stabroek News Editor's Note, I think the time has come for Guyana to have a Freedom of Expression Act (not profane language and demeaning music) and a Freedom of Information Act.

What Stabroek News considers "outlandish and unproven allegations" (SN Editor's Note) actually are within the realm of public information, and should be published while requiring someone or organisation to respond correcting any negative charge. After the response 'clearing the air' is published, then any/all continued unfounded allegations must either be retracted or court action could be taken.

Freedom of Expression will allow a person to share his/her views (via the electronic media or the press) on an issue in the public domain and, where necessary, identify any person/s connected with that issue once the person is serving in a public capacity. If it is an organisation, let its spokesperson respond.

If it is a charge or an accusation, let it so be stated, then have the media houses carrying the story get a response from the person targeted. "Unavailable for comment" or "could not be reached" are worn out cliches built into an escape syndrome used by people who want to enjoy public life but not the criticisms and or public accountability that come with the territory.

These people hide behind the artfully contrived mask of "lawsuits" while denying the taxpaying (and non-taxpaying) voters the right to information needed in helping such citizens decide how to vote the next time around, or to call for a public inquiry if necessary. Some public officials even feel they "own" the institution they manage, so they exercise their "right" to decide what information is to be given out. Public officials are accountable to the people who vote the party into power. Let the people be the judge.

Freedom of Information will allow media practitioners and media houses to, first, access public institutions for information (whether released or heard through the grape vine). If resistance is met, second, the media can then go to the court and have an order issued demanding information be released or else whoever is the 'contact person' could face severe fines and or jail time. Media practitioners and media houses also may be subjected to penalties if they violate a judge's order (except media-source privileges).

I recalled an exchange between the PNC/R leader and the Stabroek News' Editor-In-Chief over the former's accusation of some discrimination involving employees at overseas missions. The fear of lawsuits, I believe, precluded the publication of all the PNC/R leader's points, but who knows what valuable information (reportedly printed in the New Nation) could have been denied exposure to overseas-based Guyanese who know the employees?

As Government is currently working on regulations (hopefully with fines, and license suspensions or revocations as seen fit by a local communications commission) to guide the ethical behavior of broadcast stations in Guyana, broadcast stations and other media outlets also have to press Government to give some legislative support to the right to Freedom of Expression and the right to the Freedom of Information without fear of lawsuits. Time to end the controlled-society behavior.

This does not mean people will have the right to libel others or

institutions, but the right to get different points of view on issues. Maybe a simple explanation or a rebuttal could settle a case, rather than giving rise to suspicions by ducking, hiding and holding back.

The only exceptions allowed should be sensitive national security issues, sensitive international discussions or deals, and religious organisations (priest and parishioner privileges).

I said all of that to say this: there is no way Guyanese will give full support to national development if they know information is being withheld or distorted to suit any group. And if they feel slighted, they may not feel that deep sense of loyalty to defend anything in Guyana. This is the decision-making element within society that Government cannot afford to play with at this juncture.

Yours faithfully,
Emile Mervin