Touria Prayag's Blog

l’express Weekly May 25 2012

Posted in Uncategorized by touriaprayag on May 25, 2012

The matrix of transparency

“ Mr. Speaker, Sir, I am going to give the letter, in fact, so that there is no insinuation of things that do not exist. Here is a copy of the letter, Mr. Speaker, Sir.” This was the prime minister’s reaction to the leader of the opposition’s question about whether there was any reference in the letter from the minister of justice of Madagascar to the government “ to contacts between a present minister of this government and people in Madagascar involved in this trafi c de Bois de Rose. ” And the letter handed over to the leader of the opposition put an end to the exchange, doubts, aspersions etc. Unfortunately, the prime minister chose to disclose the letter to whitewash one of his ministers. Had the letter contained information implicating a member of the opposition, I doubt that he would have been so forthcoming in dishing up the information. Nor would he have had to.

We do not want to gloat about this situation where our parliamentarians are accusing one another of the very same things. However, we cannot help but think how much better off everyone would be, including and perhaps particularly those of our parliamentarians who have nothing to hide, if a Freedom of Information Bill was tabled in parliament tomorrow. The press and the public at large would have real information to base themselves upon, which would automatically put an end to rumour- mongering and false accusations.

The last time Eric Guimbeau asked the prime minister if the government proposed to introduce a Freedom of Information Bill, the question touched off a rather long exchange about the major considerations which have up until now, hindered the introduction of such legislation. So here is our two- pence worth on this debate to help dispel some of the confusion it involves.

Let’s fi rst get rid of the fallacy that the Freedom of Information Act is a piece of legislation which would require that our public body is made totally naked for us to pry about in each and every corner of it. There is no country in the world where citizens have the right to access ALL the information they want when they want. Nor is it what anyone is asking for. Therefore, the fear expressed by the prime minister about “ data preservation, exemption, compliance and noncompliance issues and preservation of sensitive commercial information bearing in mind the provisions of the Data Protection Act 2004”, is not legitimate and has no validity. Some of the information would still be classifi ed by virtue of the statutory exemptions. These would apply to both the private and the public sector.

The prime minister also raised concern about the impact such legislation would have “ on the working procedures of the public service”. As it happens, countries where such legislation has been enacted have seen their public service work much more effi ciently as public servants become more rigorous in keeping records. Such legislation might even prevent the kind of situations we have had where civil servants pay the price for ministers who may have given verbal instructions instead of documenting them.

There are over ninety countries in the world which have adopted this legislation. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund make it a requirement for countries wishing to borrow money as they would like to see transparency and accountability before they dish out the cash. In advanced democracies, information cannot be treated as the private property of the prime minister or his senior ministers.

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