Information in the public interestThursday, December 19, 2019
A few months ago there were loud calls by the professional media fraternity and others from civil society to remain vigilant to protect access to information. By that was meant public access via the Access to Information (ATI) Act, which grants the public a general right of access to official documents held by public authorities, subject to exemptions, which balance that right against the public interest in exempting from disclosure government, commercial or personal information that is sensitive in nature.
The call for such vigilance, then, remains valid today and all efforts should be made to ensure that there is no diminution of the provisions of the ATI, but rather a strengthening.
The fact is that the squabbles over getting information released under the ATI Act are often related to juicy or potentially controversial information. That tension is likely to persist and the public interest will need to remain steadfast in that regard. But there is a large volume of public information that may not even be shielded by the ATI Act and to which the public has a right, and to which access is either denied or hidden.
The current hot-button impeachment goings-on in the United States provide an interesting and useful contrast for what is not the norm in Jamaica. Here we have the president dispatching a missive to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi on December 17, and on that very day the full text is available to the entire world. Further, the full text of the impeachment report of the House, all 658 pages, is available for the world and his wife to read if they care. Not to mention the report from the Intelligence Committee of the House and the redacted version of the Mueller report. Such documents, once declared to be public, simply need to be converted to a PDF file or other format and posted on the Internet and appropriate websites. That is it!
Why cannot all or most public documents in Jamaica be made available, if not within 24 hours, even within three working days of the document being classified as public? Ministry papers laid in the House should not languish for days or weeks before being made publicly accessible.
Notwithstanding that most local public bodies have websites which do post material, a cursory review reveals that much of the data is certainly not current. Why is it that a public speech by the commissioner of police or the head or senior representative of a government agency is not made publicly available within 24 hours? I suspect that cost could be a factor and that could be understandable, somewhat. But if the minister or commissioner or permanent secretary can have a printed copy from which to deliver the presentation, what would be the incremental cost to having the administrative staff simply PDF the document and post it on the relevant website and/or pushing it out to the media?
The fact is that the lack of timely dissemination of public documents stymies academic and public research efforts. It also hampers effective communication to the populace, and its inaccessibility could fuel the spread of false narratives.
Until the local government authorities take the necessary steps to improve in this area, the reliance on the Fourth Estate becomes even more critical as long as they have the firepower to ferret out information that is beneficial in the public interest.
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