The public’s right to know

On February 16, the Stabroek News published a news story regarding the discovery of “a drug ring inside two Georgetown secondary schools” in which we attributed to “a source” information to the effect that “a group of students was involved in the peddling of the psychoactive drug ecstasy to peers” in the two named schools.

We took the story seriously as indeed we expected the Ministry of Education would. We thought that given the disturbing nature of the matter, the Ministry, once it had done its own initial probe, would, in a matter of days, at most, issue a public statement, perhaps a guarded one (bearing in mind the fact that children were involved) confirming (or otherwise) the disturbing news and at the very least enlightening stakeholders, not least the parent population, regarding the progress of its investigation into the alleged occurrence and informing of such steps as it intended to take in to confront and address the  problem. Such a statement ought to have been designed to reassure. Over a period of several weeks no public statement was forthcoming from the Ministry, at least as far as we know.

It was the Ministry of Education’s protracted silence (over a period in excess of a month after the initial report) that this newspaper subsequently referred to as it’s ‘hush, hush’ posture.

The Ministry of Education’s eventual first public pronouncement on the matter did not come (as might have been expected) as a matter of automaticity. It came in the form of a letter published on Friday April 6th in another publication, seemingly in response to the Stabroek News  editorial of Tuesday April 3 (Drugs in schools) in which we related what we had learnt about the matter from our exchanges with a number of teachers. Our editorial does not appear to have found favour with the Ministry. At least, however, it appears that it served the purpose of eliciting a public statement from the Ministry.

In essence, our contention was and remains that the Ministry of Education was  neglectful of its duty to make a responsible pronouncement on the ecstasy matter in a timely manner and that there is hardly need for it (the Ministry) to take issue with the Stabroek News for saying so. Nor is the newspaper, incidentally, unmindful of the sensitivities associated with ‘going public’ on an issue in which children are involved or for that matter on one that is the subject of a police investigation. The Ministry might wish to tell us, therefore, whether the disclosure that it has now made and which could have been made much earlier does anything to either injure the welfare of the children involved or in any way threatens to compromise police investigations into the matter. We think not.

Those two aforementioned considerations, even if they were extant, do not relieve the Ministry of Education of its own responsibility to provide public enlightenment on this matter. They merely dictate that whatever is said takes account of the relevant sensitivities. The Ministry must understand that in matters such as this official silence is not an option.

In its aforementioned letter (published in another section of the media on April 6th) the Ministry claims to have noted “a certain narrative” coming from this newspaper purporting to have all the answers to issues at the MoE.”  There is no hidden agenda here. For years, and across several political administrations, the Stabroek News has consistently criticized the Ministry of Education’s leaden-footedness in responding to important and worrisome developments that impact harmfully on our education system and on the need for a more generous measure of openness in its handing of those developments. In this regard, violence in schools comes readily to mind. It is not our opinion that a great deal has changed, over time.

One might add, of course, that the deficiencies in our education system cannot all be laid at the feet of the Ministry’s officials. Effective remedial measures can only be realised through the infusion of a far more generous measure of material and, equally importantly, technical/professional resources into the Ministry. Put differently, it is not our view that the resource levels currently at the Ministry of Education are sufficient to allow for optimum delivery on its mandate. We must either allocate more resources or else, continue to endure the erosion of our education system.

The Ministry says in its letter (published on March 6th in another medium) that it is “not in receipt of any records” to the effect that the Stabroek News ever sought to have the Chief Education Officer pronounce on this drugs in schools matter.  The assertion is erroneous. A request for a comment from the CEO was e-mailed to his office on March 25th. We received two separate telephone confirmations from a functionary in the Ministry who represented herself as the CEO’s Secretary to the effect that the e-mail had been received. That e-mail can be readily accessed.

We in Guyana have long been ‘cursed’ by the usurpation by the state and its agencies of what it believes is its right to exert control over the public’s right to know. For us, that right is axiomatic, moreso in instances like the present one where the withholding of information can give rise to public anxiety, or worse. The Ministry of Education must understand that the exercise of discretion in the dissemination cannot be taken to such counterproductive lengths that it completely undermines the principle of the public’s right to know. Even the exercise of discretion has its limits.

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