Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Context of FOIs

The Context of FOIs
Kaieteur News Editorial. July 16, 2008

In certain political quarters, especially from those in or affiliated to parties in power, the calls for a Freedom of Information Act are seen as threats to the regime.

This is very unfortunate but perhaps understandable in light of the penchant of those elevated to power to insist on untrammelled freedom of action for themselves. However, the experience of countries that have enacted the legislation for a while now, such as Canada, has demonstrated that on the whole, the governance of the state is enhanced.

The following summarises the views of Steven Langdon, who as a Canadian MP, had direct experience with the legislation in Canada. Maybe it may assuage the concerns of those who, while accepting the need for a FOI, have been dragging their feet.

“Improved governance has become an important goal of state reform in recent years. International development theory has increasingly recognised that the effectiveness with which resources are allocated, the responsiveness to public priorities and the integrity of state financial systems are all fundamental to poverty reduction and economic development.

In turn, transparency has become a central defining characteristic of improved governance; open, participatory and accountable governments are what will help bring about stronger economic performance and greater social solidarity, by encouraging integrity and citizen engagement, thereby building the social capital that theorists like Robert Putnam identify as bringing communities together and making democracy work.

Yet transparency does not grow automatically. As the World Bank Institute has noted, “openness can be embarrassing for governments and public servants at times, but the record should suggest to political representatives that openness and transparency are also crucial in the areas of effective financial management, successful policy coordination, and integrity-building.”

The core thinking for FOI Laws is the philosophy that all governmental work and actions should be open to a country’s citizens, since those citizens represent the basis of the government; their full participation in all decision-making requires such access to complete information, and governments should be doing nothing that cannot be justified and explained openly.

This concept, it must be recognised, represents a complete turnaround in traditional concepts of governance that were based on state control over information, and the notion of an elite making decisions based on knowledge which cannot be shared with the public.

The new approach reflects Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, in which the right to information is established as part of the guarantee of freedom of expression.

Article 19 ties Freedom of Information tightly to the most fundamental personal freedoms in the constellation of human rights, freedom of opinion and expression: “Everyone has the right to the freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

This represented the philosophic framework that justified the fight for access to information in Canada (and in many other countries). But political realism also requires coalition-building to achieve such a major reform, and that has been based on more pragmatic considerations.

In practical terms, the drive for FOI has come from a series of considerations such as media freedom, which generates considerable pressure to be able to access all available documents, so as to enforce accountability and explain decisions to readers.

There is the corporate sector that has often sought information on which to raise challenges to the increasing range of regulatory rulings to which firms are subject in addition to specific environmental considerations, with their complex analyses of effects and their webs of unexpected consequences.

The expansion of civil society groups in many societies has also led to increasingly organized efforts to influence decisions, and information access has been needed to succeed in those efforts.

While FOI Laws have not always been driven by anti-corruption concerns, they are seen to contribute strongly to action against corruption once established – in part by establishing principles of transparency and participation within society that in themselves counter corrupt practices, but also by establishing an important new weapon to use in revealing and attacking corrupt practices.”

It is our hope that some wider discussion on the right of citizens to freedom of information will be initiated so that there would not be so much fire and brimstone generated when the facts of a government disposal of the assets of the people are simply brought to light by the only method presently available: “leaks” of documents that should be public.

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