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
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.