The right to know

Jamaica Gleaner - - ARTS&EDUCATION - Martin Henry Martin Henry is a univer­sity ad­min­is­tra­tor. Email feedback to col­umns@ glean­erjm.com and med­hen@gmail.com. Gordon Robin­son is an at­tor­ney-at-law. Email feedback to col­umns@glean­erjm.com.

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, ten 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 Jack­sonMiller in their ac­cess-to-in­for­ma­tion ad­vo­cacy.

In the same year, 2002, that Right to Know Day was es­tab­lished, Ja­maica en­acted its 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 front­page 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 (AIU) 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

Years ago, Old BC, with young boys in tow, wear­ing jeans and a modest top, pulled up to her reg­u­lar petrol pump. Her usual at­ten­dant was fill­ing the tank when a minibus pulled up along­side. The con­duc­tor leaned out, leered down at her through her untinted driver’s win­dow, and shouted a most graphic ‘com­pli­ment’ on the ap­pear­ance of her most pri­vate parts.

REG­U­LAR CUS­TOMER

She was in­censed at the crude­ness of the ap­proach, but more at the gas station at­ten­dant who al­lowed it to pass without re­tort of any kind. She took the view that she was some­one he knew (a reg­u­lar cus­tomer), not a stranger, and he should have de­fended her. I asked how’d she ex­pect the at­ten­dant to de­fend her? Chal­lenge the ‘duc­tor to a duel at dawn? Or, maybe ex­press a con­trary opin­ion to the ‘duc­tor in equally graphic terms? To her credit, she never re­ferred to the in­ci­dent as ‘sex­ual ha­rass­ment’. So be­fore I have to lick down some­body Or cuss and let de po­lice come for me. I tell them they could keep their money I go keep my honey And die with my dig­nity! As a young lawyer, I’d com­plain bit­terly when clients started call­ing at 7 a.m. and never stopped un­til 10 p.m. I railed against the ha­rass­ment. Old BC’s re­ply: “It’s when the phone stops ring­ing you need to worry.”

I’m not a fan of ‘mod­ern’ soca (post-Salt­fish), so San­dra DesVignes-Milling­ton (‘Singing San­dra’) didn’t en­ter my or­bit un­til Reg­gae Sun­splash 1992. In 1999, she be­came only the sec­ond woman to win T&T’s Ca­lypso Monarch ti­tle. In 2003, she eclipsed the great Ca­lypso Rose by win­ning again. Her sem­i­nal work, Die with my Dig­nity, has be­come an an­them for Caribbean women hav­ing to deal with ob­tuse, crass, nar­cis­sis­tic male em­ploy­ers who San­dra called ‘mapipi’ (Trinida­dian slang for a very pro­mis­cu­ous woman).

Her point was that the boss men were them­selves act­ing more like the pros­ti­tutes they ex­pected the fe­male em­ploy­ees to be. But the song is more of a call to arms (en­cour­ag­ing her fel­low women to stand up for them­selves) than a fu­tile at­tempt to pre­vent men from be­ing men. ... but, if you value your­self as a woman, You will de­mand re­spect from di vagabond. Stand up to them and let them know the truth: Is work you want, you ain’t no blink­ing pros­ti­tute.” Sex­ual-ha­rass­ment con­sul­tants, get a life! Men will for­ever ask women for sex. All women can in­sist on is some class. If, in­stead, they en­cour­age today’s ‘drop yu baggy, gyal’ artistes with ‘ba**y-jig­ging’ salutes, classy re­quests will grad­u­ally di­min­ish un­til they dis­ap­pear up Gage’s “long tree­top”!

Peace and love.

Ifirst 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 one lit­tle man who wants to ex­er­cise his right to know? The ATI Act pre­scribes that the re­quester pay 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.

I

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