The FOI: Our right to know

-R. Kelly: The Blitz, The Payments

Frankly Speaking, it is no longer surprising to me that certain issues of national significance keep repeating themselves as the years roll by.

A sensitive issue affecting citizens’ well-being is not resolved, or takes years to be attended to.  Hence repetition, frustration, contention or national chaos attend. Whatever one’s political preference.

Such an issue has now been intensified in this society.  And it is a consequence of the now-consistent scrutiny, investigation and exposure by the Parliamentary Opposition, well complemented by the Private Print Media.  If just one half of the reports in the private media, about executive lawlessness, governmental squandermania and outright corruption, is accurate, it’s obvious by now that the efficiency – and morality of national socio-economic management is at an all-time low.  All the huge new buildings cannot hide our national disgrace of a stink capital city.  Or a stifling rich-poor gap. And the other numerous symbols of our chronic delayed, suspended development, in terms of our people’s quality of life.

In the negative tradition of some autocratic Third World governments our PPP/C twenty-one year old Administration displays vigorous reluctance to disclose information that we, the taxpayers citizens are entitled to know.  Even when millions upon millions are being spent or invested in our name, “confidentiality clauses” and other contrivances are utilized to deny the population transparency and accountability.

Happily, various forces, besides the local media and Opposition, are paving the way towards the necessary openness.  Our Constitution of Guyana does speak of “freedom to receive ideas and information without interference” (Art. 146) but did we not have a Freedom of Information (Access) Act passed?  Whilst I do recall a former Attorney-General being appointed as the “freedom of/access to information Czar (Commissioner), I can’t vouch for the active implementation of the Act.
I therefore repeat my few “understandings” of such legislation.

FOI – WHAT AND WHY

Just what is this “Freedom of Information” actually all about? Essentially and simply, it is legislation to institutionalize – by definition, direction, regulation, conditions and enforcement – citizens’ right to know!
A little long-winded? And to know what? Whatever Party you voted for last time, the fact remains that as a citizen of the Republic, you have to know just what the government and its state institutions are doing in your name and on your behalf- the latter sometimes, allegedly.  As could be argued: if the public must know and participate in decisions that will affect their lives, they must enjoy an enforced right to know – to know facts and figures, conditions of certain contracts, statistics and their meanings related to population, investments, budgetary allocations, about their representatives’ public  earnings, taxes, assets, how the national patrimony is being managed.  Oh man, the list is long.  But why is that right important?  When food, fuel and medicines, recreation and education, are more personal priorities and concerns?

Information, like knowledge, is power and the right to access it, either from government or private sources, is now so treasured by free-thinking citizens that officialdom with nothing to fear or hide has guaranteed access by legislation.  In fact, many of societies’ stakeholders – from individual citizens, whether farmer, entrepreneur or attorney to representative groups, now grasp fully the value of this civil right, the freedom of information.  For “the fundamental premise… is that governments, for example, hold information not for themselves, but as a service for the people.  Those citizens therefore have a democratic right to access that information”.  Given a few exceptions and/or conditions.

Currently, concerned citizens here are interested in just why, what and how government is conducting the business of managing national assets.  All very valid and justifiable requests to know certain information.  Access to information is fundamental to transparency and accountability.  Information invites scrutiny.  Scrutiny stymies corruption.  In some genuine democratic societies corruption’s exposure removes officials.  And brings down governments!  Little wonder some governments take time, much time to guarantee freedom of information by legislation.  Non-justiciable Constitutional Statements of Intent first have to do for some weary populations.

EXCEPTIONS, PRIVACY…

Naturally, a government’s responsibility to our sovereignty; it’s duty to protect and defend the integrity of the Stare as well as the individual right to privacy, which is not destabilizing or offensive to the Greater Good, must also be guaranteed.  Freedom of Information law must therefore accommodate “a regime of legitimate exceptions”.

I’ll return to this issue frequently.  I admit to being late in terms of advocating the fearlessness and maturity for those in the Corridors of Power to enact this legislation.  Now, aware as I am of the explanations, reasons and excuses proffered for the time being taken “to get there”, I know too how far we as citizens should be guaranteed answers to questions about tenders and bidding, the strength of the GDF, how many doctors taxpayers employ, the profits of public utilities, who leases our forests, when casinos’ licences are granted and the rainfall figures.

I’ll understand if I can’t be told when the police will launch surprise raids.  I don’t want the right to know my Member of Parliament’s Bedroom affairs or his latest medical complaint.  But I should know the state of his Tax Payments as a public representative.  Much, much more to come but I hope I’ve captured your FOI interest.  Especially as Government Ministers and Heads of Public Corporations refuse to release information these days.  Yes, they must be allowed to do their work but not wholly unfettered. Never must secrecy compromise our reasonable access to information.  Stay tuned.

R. Kelly and his fee

This weekend I’ll strive to retain my appreciation of R. Kelly the R and B Singing Superstar.  I’ll force from my psyche the disappointment he heaped upon me before being exonerated by successive American Courts of Law.

But again I marvel at the Blitzkrieg of advertisement, publicity and hype inviting and seducing the fans to attend.  The promoters do certainly spend thousands on their pre-publicity.

I am also proud of the promoters having the “guts” to invest and pay the super-star quite hefty fees.  How do they do it? Great stuff!

Until…

*1)  Since Public Para-Statal Corporations are (literally) our business, we, “the people”, should at the least, know their Board of Directors.
So name four members of the Board of the Guyana Power and Light (GPL) Company, for example.

‘Til next week
(Comments? allanafenty@yahoo.com)

Around the Web

Comments