Freedom of information

Stabroek News
August 22, 2003

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In our Wednesday edition we reported Foreign Minister Insanally as expressing shock that a “confidential” report the United Nations Department of Public Administration had prepared for his ministry had been “leaked” to this newspaper. He was, he told reporters, less troubled by the matter of the contents entering the public domain than by the “leakage” itself.

One is tempted to remark, ‘Welcome to the reality of the open society.’ On a more trivial note, it might also be observed that his is not the first ministry in this country to find that information on the substance of a so-called “confidential” document, or the document itself, has found its way to this newspaper. All over the world media organizations routinely gain access to material that governments do not want made public, and then run reports, or sometimes exposes, based on what that material contains.

The Minister mused aloud on the security implications of this “leak.” There are no security implications. The report in question was not a confidential report in the true sense of that term; it was a report whose findings the public were entitled to know about, but which the ministry and the government did not want in the open because they clearly were a source of embarrassment to them. No truly sensitive document has ever come our way from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and neither, incidentally, would we be reporting on the substance of such a document if one fell into our hands - although admittedly that is not something which a Minister of Foreign Affairs could take into consideration.

No, the problem here is a government which is overly secretive, and out of step with the information era. If our report in Sunday Stabroek of August 17 was an expose it was only an expose for the simple reason that the Ministry itself had elected not to reveal anything about the review - not even that a UN team had been asked to come here in the first place. The administration has complained loudly and publicly about the limitations of the Public Service, and has never hidden information from the media about pending reviews of its operations in the past. What then is so exceptional about the Ministry of Foreign Affairs? Surely the Government and the Minister are to be commended, not condemned, for their initiative, whatever the UN team’s findings.

And where the latter specifically are concerned, it is worth remarking that even Mr Insanally was constrained to admit that the recommendations were hardly “earth-shattering.”

If this had been another jurisdiction, the Government could have been obliged to place the report in the public domain under a freedom of information act. But we have no such act, of course, and the administration has displayed no particular appetite for introducing one.

The Government must recognize that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is supported by taxpayers’ money, and the administration is accountable to the people for how that money is spent. If a ministry or government agency is not functioning as it should, then as stated above, the public is entitled to know about it, and the Government is not entitled to keep the information to itself. This particular report, therefore, was very much a matter of public interest, and nothing the Ministry says can alter that. Which is not to say that the review might not have its limitations, or even be inaccurate in parts, but that is still no excuse for sitting on it.

In a general sense, the Government should by now have realized that we do not live in the isolation of the Burnham era, when ordinary people had not even heard of the internet or fax machine, and when the dissemination of information could be stymied by means of a tightly controlled media. In other words, at a practical level alone, controlling the flow of information in the way in which it was done twenty years ago is simply not possible.

If the Chinese Government with all the means of repression at its disposal a decade-and-a-half ago could not delay news about Tiananmen Square reaching the outside world, and if the Soviet oligarchs who wanted to overthrow Gorbachev were defeated by modern communications, does the Government of Guyana seriously believe that it can get away with withholding data which should be public, but which it feels might show it in a bad light?

In a general sense, the Government needs to rethink its whole policy on making information available to the people; in particular, it needs to move in the direction of freedom of information legislation.

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