Draw­bridge up

Malta Independent - - NEWS -

Writ­ing in our sis­ter Sunday edi­tion last week, Al­ter­nat­tiva Demokratika chair­man Carmel Ca­co­pardo de­scribed the way in which the gov­ern­ment is ob­struct­ing ac­cess to in­for­ma­tion as “a crime against democ­racy.”

He is ab­so­lutely cor­rect. The ways in which the gov­ern­ment chooses to dis­pense and dis­sem­i­nate in­for­ma­tion that the pub­lic has ev­ery right to know has reached abysmal pro­por­tions.

And it is not only those sec­tions of the press that the gov­ern­ment at times con­sid­ers hos­tile that it with­holds in­for­ma­tion from. We as the me­dia, af­ter all, have be­come ac­cus­tomed to not get­ting an­swers from cer­tain gov­ern­ment en­ti­ties, un­less those an­swers are ben­e­fi­cial to them.

The same ap­plies not only to the in­de­pen­dent press, but across the board, at least in the opin­ion of the per­son tasked with form­ing such an opin­ion – the Om­buds­man. In his re­port for 2017, the Om­buds­man raises the is­sue of the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s fail­ure to pro­vide in­for­ma­tion. Ac­cord­ing to the Om­buds­man, the gov­ern­ment as a whole has adopted an over­all neg­a­tive ap­proach to­wards its duty to keep cit­i­zens in­formed, at times go­ing to “ex­tremes by even re­fus­ing to pro­vide im­por­tant and even vi­tal in­for­ma­tion to which the pub­lic was ob­vi­ously en­ti­tled since it con­cerned im­por­tant seg­ments of the

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eco­nomic and so­cial life of the coun­try.” The Om­buds­man also raises the is­sue of how the gov­ern­ment has adopted more and more non-dis­clo­sure clauses with par­ties into which it en­ters into busi­ness in what he de­scribed as “an at­tempt to en­sure a to­tal blackout of si­lence.”

The prac­tice is noth­ing new, but it is noted how it is on the in­crease.

In­deed, from the pass­port sales to the pub­lic lot­tery sys­tem and from Vi­tals to Elec­tro­gas, and to even run-of-the-mill ques­tions posed by the press, the draw­bridge has been raised and se­cured very tightly in­deed.

All this, how­ever, con­trasts quite sharply with those elec­toral pledges made back in 2013 about open gover­nance. Re­mem­ber the ac­count­abil­ity and trans­parency pledge? Ac­count­abil­ity has ob­vi­ously failed quite mis­er­ably, and the less said about that at the mo­ment, the bet­ter, lest we di­gress, and so has trans­parency, ac­cord­ing not just to us, but to the Om­buds­man him­self.

“We want an ac­count­able, trans­par­ent gov­ern­ment and we are not afraid of let­ting go of some power to open gov­ern­ment up be­yond politi­cians,” Prime Min­is­ter Joseph Mus­cat had said at the time. It is a pity that the gov­ern­ment ap­pears to have changed its mind quite dras­ti­cally in this re­spect. Open gover­nance is about mak­ing the peo­ple part of the de­ci­sion-mak­ing process more of­ten than once ev­ery five years when elec­tion time rolls around. It is about in­volv­ing the pub­lic in the run­ning of the coun­try; it is about cre­at­ing the types of ac­tive cit­i­zens that will take this coun­try up­ward and on­ward in the decades to come. It is all about ac­tive cit­i­zen­ship, and open­ing up gov­ern­ment struc­tures to the pub­lic.

Im­por­tantly in the cur­rent con­text, open gover­nance means mak­ing sure that the pub­lic has ac­cess to gov­ern­ment in­for­ma­tion so that they can en­gage more ef­fec­tively with their gov­ern­ment. At the same time, it also means that govern­ments have the abil­ity to re­spond more ef­fec­tively to cit­i­zens and work col­lab­o­ra­tively to solve dif­fi­cult gover­nance is­sues. Open­ness makes a gov­ern­ment more trans­par­ent and ac­count­able to its cit­i­zens and as such it en­hances the le­git­i­macy of those in power, in the process cre­at­ing more faith in those who run the coun­try. Open gover­nance pro­vides a plat­form be­tween the gov­ern­ment and its cit­i­zens. It can have cru­cial roles in, for ex­am­ple, en­sur­ing bud­get al­lo­ca­tions or that the use and pro­vi­sion of so­cial ser­vices go to ar­eas where the peo­ple feel they are most needed.

But per­haps given the fol­low­ing stag­ger­ing elec­toral vic­to­ries the Labour Party had se­cured and the vir­tu­ally unas­sail­able par­lia­men­tary mar­gin it was awarded, it felt it could leave such lofty no­tions by the way­side.

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