Martin Henry | The right to know
Jamaica joined a number of other countries worldwide to mark Right to Know (RTK) Week just over a week ago. By happy coincidence - or good timing - the Press Association of Jamaica also held its annual general meeting and election of officers at the start of RTK Week.
Returned PAJ President Dionne Jackson-Miller has put at the top of her second-term action list dismantling barriers that frustrate journalists using the Access to Information Act.
"I'd like to see us focus a little more on the Access to Information Act," she said.
"We've been getting lots of concerns from media workers about how it operates and the barriers they go through in terms of trying to get information."
The right to know is, of course, an individual citizen's right, which does not have to be mediated by media. But the media play a special role as organised entities to investigate, get information, and deliver it to the public as their business. For this, we thank them.
The purpose of RTK Week, as one Canadian promotional website tells us, is to raise awareness about people's right to access government information, while promoting freedom of information as essential to both democracy and good governance.
Internationally, RTK Day began on September 28, 2002, in Sofia, Bulgaria at an international meeting of access to information advocates who proposed that a day be dedicated to the promotion of freedom of information worldwide. It is now celebrated globally and continues to grow and expand each year.
Canada, which is often at the very top of the UNDP's Human Development Index, is one country that takes the right to know of all citizens very seriously. Their Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada proudly tells the world, "All Canadian provinces and territories have freedom of information legislation and a commissioner or ombudsperson responsible for ensuring that the rights of information requesters are respected."
Since that historic meeting in Sofia in 2002, 10 Right to Know Principles have been developed:
1. Access to information is a right of everyone.
2. Access is the rule - secrecy is the exception!
3. The right (of access) applies to all public bodies.
4. Making requests should be simple, speedy, and free.
5. Officials have a duty to assist requesters.
6. Refusals must be justified.
7. Public interest takes precedence over secrecy.
8. Everyone has the right to appeal an adverse decision.
9. Public bodies should proactively publish core information.
10. The right should be guaranteed by an independent body.
These principles should be of considerable assistance to the PAJ and President Jackson-Miller in their access-to-information advocacy.
In the same year, 2002, that Right to Know Day was established, Jamaica enacted our Access to Information Act.
"Every person," the act says, "shall have a right to obtain access to an official document, other than an exempt document." The exemptions are set out in Part III of the act and are mostly reasonable, covering such things as protecting national security, international relations, third-party confidentiality, law enforcement, some Cabinet documents, legal privilege, the economy, trade secrets, and personal privacy.
But the good news is, "the exemption of an official document or part thereof from disclosure shall not apply after the document has been in existence for 20 years, or such shorter or longer period as the Minister may specify by order, subject to affirmative resolution." A treasure trove of previously exempt state documents in independent Jamaica, including Cabinet documents, should now be available.
BARRIERS AND OBSTACLES
The media have been focusing rather heavily on gaining access to financial minutiae. The front-page story that drew me into commenting on the Constituency Development Fund was concerned with 'Costly assistants', loudly announcing, 'MPs spend $320m over four years for admin assistants.' What makes that expenditure 'costly' was left unanswered and the larger issues of the existence and operations of the CDF were left untouched.
Travel costs have also been much pursued by media. Perhaps the PAJ could coach its members to probe more deeply.
With Cabinet documents of the '60s, '70s, '80s and even '90s now up for open access, a powerful searchlight could be turned on recent political history through access to information.
It is the Access to Information Unit in the Office of the Prime Minister that is leading the celebration of RTK Week. When you read the functions of the unit as published last Wednesday, Right to Know Day, and watch its actual operations, it is quite clear that the AIU does not answer to Principle 10 of the Right to Know Principles: The right should be guaranteed by an independent body. It is the administrative unit for the ATI Act and an advisory body to the Government. Very much itself a civil-service agency. It is not an OCG, an OUR, or an INDECOM, independently pursuing delivery and performance against the requirements of the law. The PAJ should look into this in its drive to dismantle barriers to using the ATI Act. What's needed is a watchdog, not a dray mule.
It's too often like pulling teeth to find out how things work in Jamaica and to get plain and simple access and process information. And the people who suffer most are the less articulate in formal speech, the less educated, and the less powerful with no contacts.
Even more important than finding out the 'secrets' of Government, the right to know should emphasise being able to know how things work in a simple, straightforward, understandable manner.
Government, pushed by a real RTK advocacy body, could perform wonders in improving citizens' experience and satisfaction with public service delivery and with that the performance efficiency of the public Service.
Our best alternative in print is to use strong graphic elements along with ABC English. Even in the bastions of English as a first language like in the UK itself, Canada and Australia, there is a powerful movement and commitment for delivering state communication in basic English. We need real information desks in the ministries, departments and agencies of Government, with real human beings who can clearly and articulately explain how things work.
The PAJ, its members backed by Big Media, is talking about barriers and obstacles in using the ATI. Can you imagine the plight of the little one man who wants to exercise his right to know? The ATI Act prescribes that the requester pays for reproducing the information wanted with a provision for a waiver.
The Government, watched by a real ATI watchdog, should assiduously work on the 'simple' and the 'speedy'. Part of the PAJ complaint is the slow turnaround time on top of a cumbersome process.
When I contributed my two pennies worth to the development of the Access to Information Act, I kept making the point that in democratic government, with the rights and freedoms of citizens paramount, the business of governance should be conducted in the town square. Access is the rule; secrecy the exception.
- Martin Henry is a university administrator. Email feedback to columns@