Sunday, March 21, 2010

Freedom of information

Kaieteur News Editorial, Thursday 18 March 2010. Freedom of information.

March 18, 2010 | By KNews | Filed Under Editorial

It is absolutely necessary for the government and people of Guyana to pursue greater freedom of information, within reasonable boundaries, if they hope to achieve true democracy and good governance. Freedom of speech and freedom of the press are fundamental rights in democratic nations, and are enshrined in Guyana’s constitution. However, these rights are often trampled by persons who want to keep the public in the dark about matters that ought to be exposed in the public’s interest. The truth is for freedom of speech and freedom of the press to be meaningful they must be complemented with freedom of information.
Those who draw a shroud of secrecy over vital information about public issues for partisan reasons, deny the people of Guyana their right to be fully informed about matters that deeply affect their lives.
This was one of the issues determined by the courts when Vieira Communications moved to the courts to challenge the seizure of its radio transmitting equipment.
The court found that by not granting radio licences the government was denying the rights of the people. When the question of additional radio licences first surfaces, Prime Minister Sam Hinds admitted that to relax the monopoly was to threaten the very existence of the state owned radio station; that the station could not compete.
Since the ruling of the court, no new radio station has emerged. But this is not because people have not made applications for such licences.
Any nation that is in fact on the road to democracy cannot steer clear of enacting and enforcing powerful legislation to guarantee freedom of information, as a catalyst for genuinely free speech and free media.
Unfortunately, persons in Guyana, particularly officials who are involved in activities that affect the public welfare, can easily block or delay access to information about their activities and steep their actions in secrecy and evasion.
Many officials bluntly refuse to reveal information on public issues, even when their refusal clearly compromises the public interest. In many cases, they do so without giving any reason and it is difficult to hold them accountable. That is the reason why there is a move to have a Freedom of Information Act. Not surprisingly, this piece of promised legislation is failing to see the light of day.
The first time it was tabled the government with its parliamentary majority said that it would not support the legislation. It was the same when the parliamentary opposition sought to introduce the Broadcast Legislation. The government said that it was not prepared to support the legislation.
Guyana cannot progress towards democracy without facilitating a flow of public information that enhances democratic rights. This means ensuring that appropriate mechanisms are in place to ensure informed debate on public issues, exposure of wrongdoings, protection of the public from danger, accountability for public funds, etc.
It is essential that there is reasonable access to information to make certain that the public is not misled, authorities properly discharge their responsibilities, and the Guyanese people are dealt with fairly.
Of course, there must be appropriate grounds for refusing information. Clearly, there cannot be total freedom of information regarding national security matters, certain court proceedings and police activities. Also, there would be restrictions related to information whose disclosure is prohibited by particular laws. Furthermore, citizens must have reasonable rights to privacy and the withholding of personal information, but this exemption should be flexible, particularly with respect to officials acting in official capacities.
It would be practical for exemptions to the public’s right to freedom of information, to be subjected to the public interest test. If disclosure would clearly be beneficial to the public’s interest, then the onus should be on the person or agency seeking secrecy to show why information should not be disclosed. It would be useful to establish a carefully constituted, independent authority with the power to compel disclosure of information in the public’s interest.
Guyana should definitely move towards greater disclosure of information on public issues and progressively enact appropriate legislation to facilitate this.


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