It has long been believed that a Freedom of Information Act serves the best interests of a democracy by ensuring that persons have greater access to information. This is a myth.
Freedom of Information does not improve public access to information; it is merely a façade used by western governments to bolster their credentials as a free society.
It is now more than thirty-eight years since Jonestown and yet there are critical pieces of information that are still being treated as top secret.
How much has Freedom of Information facilitated the release of information to the American public?
The very Act, which obligates Governments to facilitate information release, also gives the government an excuse to not release information. That excuse is usually national security considerations.
So, do you want to know about British intelligence in the run up to the war on Iraq? Do you want to know whether the Iraqi dossier was sexed up?
Well information can be denied on the grounds that it will impinge on national security considerations. Just after the PPP came to power, a number of documents were declassified by the Americans and the British. These documents confirmed what was known: that both governments encouraged the destabilisation of the PPP government because of fears of communism.
The documents released the details of funding for opposition parties, and even mentioned a proposal to kidnap the Jagans and fly them to Venezuela. All of these things were, however, known long before the documents were declassified.
For a long time the United States had accused the Burnham regime of allowing the refueling of Cuban plans en route to Angola.
The Burnham Government consistently denied these allegations. Well, information is now coming to the fore, which suggests that permission was indeed granted for these refueling stops. But what use is the information now more than 25 years later.
When are we going to know what the Americans know about the assassination of Walter Rodney? Next week will mark thirty-seven years since the assassination of this renowned historian and political activist. By the time information is released, those responsible and those having a direct hand in the assassination would have already died.
Gregory Smith, the agent who it is said gave the explosive device to Rodney, has already died. So what use is the information, other than of historical value, after so many years?
Access to information under a Freedom of Information Act can also be frustrated by administrative delays. You can apply for information but there is no guarantee how long it will take for it to be considered and just what information will be forthcoming.
And there is little possibility of holding the government in contempt of the Act. Most acts are so worded as to immunise the executive from sanctions for not supplying the desired information.
A Freedom of Information Act is therefore no red-letter event in our history. What would be achieved by this legislation? Do you ever believe that such an Act would allow the Guyanese people to demand to see the final agreement signed between City Hall and the parking meter investor?
Do you believe that it will lead to the immediate tabling in the National Assembly of the agreements signed by the coalition with foreign companies such as Exxon Mobil?
Let us be serious, a Freedom of Information Act will only add to the official bureaucracy. Information will only be released as it is deemed necessary. The government can frustrate the release of information to the Commissioner of Information.
What Guyana needs is not to mimic what obtains in developed countries. What Guyana needs is not a Freedom of Information Act. What Guyana needs is the freedom of public officials to freely release information to the public.
However progressive is our constitution, we do not have such independence in the official bureaucracy nor do we have a similar degree of checks and balances that would facilitate an accountable governmental institutional culture.
A Freedom of Information Act does not change institutional culture within a society; it is but a mere reflection of that culture.
So, those seeking to imitate without knowing or understanding what facilitates access to public information, should understand that freedom of information legislation does not necessarily change the institutional culture of the government to make it more open and transparent.
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