UNESCO: Access to information is your right!
On Tuesday May 3rd 2016 Dominica should join the rest of the democratic world in the observance of World Press Freedom Day. This year UNESCO has chosen the theme: Access to Information and Fundamental Freedoms-This is your Right!"
World Press Freedom Day 2016 highlights the links between press freedom, a culture of openness and the right to freedom of information, and sustainable development in the digital age.
Undoubtedly, journalists and members of the public who have experienced the frustration of obtaining even the most benign piece of information from the Dominica civil service will understand the significance of that theme to Dominica and to a lesser extent the rest of the Caribbean.
For instance last July a high court judge in Trinidad ordered the then minister of finance Larry Howai to disclose exactly how billions of dollars of state funds were disbursed in the CL Financial bailout.
"This litigation arose out of the continuing failure or refusal of the ministry of finance, since 2009, to provide any proper details of just how over $25 billion in public money was spent," said Afra Raymond who used the country's Freedom of Information (FoI) Act to extract the information from the government.
Just last month, the British media reported that Prince Charles, who has been criticised for "meddling" in politics, was sent all cabinet memoranda, alongside the Queen. This information was obtained through the FoI.
There have been serious exposures of poor practice in health and other services that have led to major changes in policy, while one paper, the Daily Telegraph used FoI to expose the tens of millions of pounds councillors and local authority officers spent on taxpayer-funded credit cards for first-class travel to foreign destinations and stays in five-star hotels.
Britain and Trinidad and Tobago are two of the approximately 100 countries that have enacted FoI legislation, giving the media and the public on a whole a powerful means to extract information from public bodies and hold them accountable. Often the information is embarrassing but taxpayers have a right to know.
The long list of countries includes Bangladesh, Columbia, Thailand, South Korea, Zimbabwe and even China.
The recent revelation by foreign media that Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit had given a diplomatic passport to a former Nigerian minister with a shady background highlighted the need for similar legislation here. It is no secret that Dominicans are kept in the dark on how their tax dollars are spent. Extracting information from government, whether public servants or ministers, is virtually impossible. Often, journalists and the public are met with the customary, 'it's none of your business'.
For this reason, we might never know how many Dominican diplomatic passports are held by foreigners, who these people are and how much, if any, they each paid for the privilege. It is for the same reason we might never know the details of the Memorandum of Understanding signed with China in 2004, who sells Dominican passports, how governing politicians spend our money when they travel, how much the myriad advisors are paid, or a host of other activities undertaken by government in our name and paid for by us.
Now more than ever there is a need for open government. The vast gap between the political class and the people will continually erode our democracy and sever any trust and confidence in the public service. Openness and transparency are vital to better delivery of public services.
On World Press Freedom Day 2016, UNESCO reminds us of Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that the fundamental right of freedom of expression encompasses the freedom "to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers"
It is evident, UNESCO argues, that "right to impart information is of little purpose in the absence of the right to seek and receive; and also that the scope of the latter activity (sending or receiving) is directly conditioned by the extent of what is imparted.
"In other words, the right to freedom of expression involves two sides of the same coin: producing messages, and consuming them – neither of which makes sense without the other.
"This interconnection means that any limitations on the imparting side of communications impact on the receiving side, and vice versa. The degree to which a society has a rich and open information environment therefore depends on the conditions for freedom in both dimensions."
As we said in an earlier editorial, the current state of affairs - the painful absence of honest, open and consistent communication from a haughty and arrogant administration - suggests a deliberate strategy of ignorance.
We repeat: If government is truly interested, it might wish to borrow a leaf from Jamaica which approved FoI in 2002. Recently, the minister of information Sandrea Falconer officially launched the government's first ever communication policy, described by the Jamaica Information Service (JIS) as cementing the administration's commitment to greater accountability, transparency and good governance.
"The policy has been developed to . . . to promote the effective dissemination of official information and meaningful engagement with the people of Jamaica," a release from the JIS stated.
Falconer herself has pointed out that having a proper communication policy and a proper communication environment encourage transparency and good governance and is an important step which demonstrated that "this administration is taking seriously, communicating to our people and getting them involved in what we do."
Mr. Skerrit might wish to emulate this and demonstrate a commitment to involving Dominicans in what he does and keeping us informed. This can't be too difficult.
Telling us just what government thinks we need to hear and doing this while hidden in the security of friendly media is not enough. We need a Freedom of Information Act. And that's our right!