1. Why do we need freedom of information?
Freedom of information is a key ingredient of any country which purports to be a democracy. Having access to reliable information which is as complete as possible allows people to make rational decisions (e.g. who to vote for, which policies to support). FOI also deters political decision-makers from indulging in corrupt acts as these could be more easily detected and exposed in the public sphere.
2. What should it consist of?
Freedom of information encompasses press freedom but is not limited to this. The media are deemed to be important facilitators in the public sphere, like some sort of “intellectuals within the city”. In this tech-oriented world, FOI means giving access to all government files which are of public interest (excluding rare cases of national security issues). More importantly, we should ensure that such data is accessible in open formats which allow media people as well as ordinary citizens to scrutinise and analyse them.
3. Who does it benefit?
Democracy. All citizens.
4. How does it work abroad?
There are around 90 countries which have some form of FOI (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freedom_of_information_laws_by_country). Normally, this means that any citizen should be able to either consult or get a copy of documents from public administrations. As Robertson explained in his preliminary report, it’s a pretty complex administration and it would take time to implement FOI if the law is indeed proposed and accepted. You would need to train civil servants and review the whole information system. And in some countries, FOI legislation has loopholes or is not necessarily well implemented for all sorts of reasons (technical issues, bureaucracy, obfuscation, etc) . Nevertheless, as it’s an important right in a democracy, we need to start working on it in Mauritius. Unfortunately, none of our politicians are currently committed to propose and implement FOI as it goes against their DNA. Civil society should lobby for it.
5. How will the people benefit from it?
With FOI, investigative reporting and detection of corruption becomes easier. There is more transparency on how public money (i.e. taxpayers’ money) is used. Hopefully, this should lead to more efficiency.
6. How does its absence refrain liberty and democracy?
Veils of secrecy always lead to even the most ethical persons to be prone to corruption once in power. FOI means more accountability and thus brings us nearer to the real definition of democracy (government by the people for the people).
7. Should we repeal the Official Secrecy Act?
FOI cannot exist if the Official Secrets Act and the Civil Service Manual, which forbids communication to the public and the press without higher authorisation, remain as they are. They are incompatible. Obviously, there are provisions for issues such as national security or trade secrets which would stay. But overall, the Official Secrets Act needs to be reviewed to remove the blanket culture of secrecy.
In an episode of Yes, Minister, Sir Humphrey states that the Official Secrets Act is “not there to protect secrets, but to protect officials”. (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Official_Secrets_Act)
Questions by Jameela Jadoo
This interview was done for News on Sunday in May 2014
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