Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The oxygen of embarrassment

The oxygen of embarrassment
Stabroek News Editorial. Monday June 9, 2008

When Mr Toby Mendel of the Article 19 group told members of Parliament at a seminar last month that it was an embarrassment for a country that presented itself as a democracy not to have a Freedom of Information (FOI) law he wasn’t saying anything that the MPs were unaware of. In his own eloquent words he got to the nub of the matter: the FOI law is the “oxygen of democracy”.
Indeed, without the FOI, democracy and all of its lustrous facets are at risk of being dimmed by secret, conspiratorial and opaque governance and we have plenty of that here. Without the FOI, good governance is entrusted to the aspiration that our leaders will evince Solomonic wisdom, openness and fairness. And in case they didn’t there would be institutions aplenty to enable the necessary checks and balances.
But what if those in charge divert from the track of good and fair governance while steadfastly denying this and employing the propagandist art to the nth degree? What if the institutions that are intended to enable the checks and balances are not properly resourced or are compromised in other ways? What then? How could a skeptical populace exercise their civic right in discovering how the government is shepherding the country and holding it accountable for its decisions? One way in modern democracies is by the FOI law.
This government has thus far shown great unwillingness to go this route despite the examples set by its counterparts in Kingston and Port-of-Spain. The seminar ended with only grudging commitments to move in the direction of the FOI. We know that road exactly. The government can dither for years or sit on legislation as it has on the money laundering law. Despite having been passed so many years now not a single prosecution has proceeded under that law and a Select Committee of Parliament now has a new bill before it which is also being taken through an interminably long process.
The fate of the AFC’s FOI bill therefore looks bleak unless the government shows itself willing to be open to each and every citizen it governs in the name of. The reservations over the FOI as expressed by government spokespersons at the seminar had the same hollow ring of some of the objections that the PNC had famously issued over electoral reforms such as counting at the place of poll; they convince very few people except their most hardened supporters.
In one instance, as a supposed measure of openness, a government MP pointed to the fact that the law requires that MPs and a range of government officials submit details on their financial affairs to the Integrity Commission. This is all good except for the stark fact that this checks-and-balances institution doesn’t really function and hasn’t been for a while. Who is poring over those returns or aggressively going after those who haven’t tendered statements? Where are its investigators to conduct forensic probes of complex financial transactions?
Several government MPs went to great pains to argue that a lot of information is already in the public domain – extravagant numbers like 80% were bandied about along with the argument that ministries and government agencies already submit reports to Parliament and even have websites. That is all commendable save for the not so minor argument that these bodies are only giving information they want to give to the public – much of it useless and dated – and only when they want to give it.
It was further argued by one MP that if information on trivial matters was withheld from the public then such an act was more than likely misplaced punctiliousness by some public servant which could be easily remedied. Does this explain why the Bureau of Statistics – an extremely important data gathering agency - has neglected for too many months to release the consumer price index data and even explain why? There has to be some explanation and the public awaits.
Public servants and other gatekeepers of information in the public sector respond to the signals of their political masters. This government’s outlook is to be the sole arbiter of information dissemination. It is paranoid about the release of information that it doesn’t control and sanitise and this attitude has defined and nurtured the reticence among public servants on releasing even harmless information.
A host of other unconvincing arguments were presented at the seminar why Guyana did not have the FOI law and might not have one in the foreseeable future. None was convincing and this attitude on the part of the government threatens to put at further risk the quality of governance.
It is time for President Jagdeo’s administration to show it has nothing to fear from being open and support MP Trotman’s FOI bill when it comes up for debate. The evidence, however, points in the direction that it wants to continue with its secret dealings.
A flagrant example of this was the secret Memorandum of Understanding that was signed between Go-Invest and Mr Buddy Shivraj for the Buddy’s hotel. In addition to a range of concessions which should have been in the public domain, the government for the first time signalled that it was in favour of casino gambling. It promised to facilitate as far as possible the application for a casino. This was long before the contrived public discussions that were held by the government on the casinos. It is this type of grotesque decision-making that the FOI is intended to expose. If it were not for the media, no one would have known that a secret MOU had been clinched. And whether or not the casino is ever established Mr Shivraj will not be in charge of it as he has since sold his business to a Turkish investor who is greatly interested in gambling and about whom not enough is known. Should the government have been able to give a secret commitment to an investor who has now sold his business and conferred the terms of the MOU on another?
There are myriad examples of unnecessary secrecy such as the investors behind the hotel in Kingston and another on Main Street that facilitated a swap for the prized National Archives location. Last week we reported on how a large sum of money from the European Union which had been earmarked for a multitude of micro projects was in danger of being lost because the government had suddenly withheld its support. All of the relevant officials have been given an opportunity by this newspaper to respond. None has yet taken up the offer.
More than a year after the Cricket World Cup, incessant requests by this newspaper for detailed information on expenditure are still to be requited.
There is now a new and pressing test for the government. Defence counsel for Roger Khan has alleged in court documents that he imported sensitive electronic eavesdropping equipment with the permission of the Guyana Government. If that were so it would draw Mr Khan much closer to the government during a very bloody and difficult phase in the country’s history. If the FOI were in place it would have required the government and its various agencies to answer questions about this equipment, questions that have gone unanswered for many years since Mr Khan and others were arrested at Good Hope.
It is that type of test the FOI sets. The longer the government opposes it the more it becomes the oxygen of its embarrassment.

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