Touria Prayag's Blog

Unleashing the watchdogs

Posted in Uncategorized by touriaprayag on March 22, 2014

When I read some of the press coverage of the round table on Geoffrey Robertson’s report on the media, I felt a short moment of sympathy for politicians. If I wasn’t misquoted, the statements attributed to me during the intervention about freedom of information must have been made either when I was recovering from a huge hangover or before – to quote a minister – I passed my senior (end of school certificate).

Our opinion about a freedom of information legislation can be summed up as follows: access to information is a right, not a privilege and there is no one in any country who has been hurt by such legislation except thieves, crooks and those who have something to hide. We have been consistent in our argument that the transparency that such legislation would entail does not only serve journalists. Far from it. It serves the public at large. In fact, in mature democracies where such legislation exists, only 10% of those who resort to it are journalists. The other 80% are students, ordinary citizens, investors etc.

We do not want to gloat over this situation where our parliamentarians are accusing one another of the very same things they were accused of when they were in power. 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 were 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.

And let’s dispel some of the spin-doctoring around this issue: that a Freedom of Information Act is a piece of legislation which would require our public body to be 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. Some of the information would still be classified by virtue of the statutory exemptions. These would apply to both the= private and the public sector. However – and this is a very important point – it is not the government that decides which information should be classified. When there is litigation over a request for information which has not been acceded to, it is an independent commissioner who has access to all the documents requested who decides whether the information requested should be given out or should be classified.

Because of the importance of the role of the ombudsperson or the privacy commissioner, we argued that, more than introducing the act itself, the choice of an independent person who is seen to be independent is of utmost importance. He will be the one who citizens will run to anytime they are denied information or the authorities stymie them.

There are over 90 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 is not treated as the private property of ministers any more than informing is the prerogative of journalists.


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