Sophia Chote

Sophia Chote SC

WHILE we complain about the prevalence of “fake news” infiltrating media reporting, we spend little time discussing ways in which we as citizens may find facts for ourselves.

One weapon in our arsenal is the Freedom of Information Act. We as individuals have the power to add clarity to what is fed to us as news.

It is true that you may meet delays and sometimes outright refusals or receive incomplete content but we cannot talk about accountability until we use the legal resources which we have, to seek to obtain information important to us.

For example, when we celebrated our 50th anniversary as an independent nation, there was talk coming from persons who ought to have been in the know that the President would pardon 50 persons who had already spent decades in prison. There was even talk that the pardon documents had been signed. And then? Silence.

It may have been thought by political pundits that the then-government did not want to face any negative political fallout such as headlines blaring “50 murderers released”.

It seems to me though, that what should matter to us is the question of whether these persons had been pardoned (because a pardon is recommended only when it is merited), in which case they acquired a legal status, and what became of that matter? Was it all talk? If so why did the relevant government Ministry at the time not come forward and categorically state that this had never been on the cards.

If these persons were pardoned and some chicanery resulted in their continued incarceration then citizen journalism may help us to find the facts. This is what the rule of law is all about.

Citizen journalism may be used to ascertain facts which are in the public interest in diverse areas. One of the biggest areas of uncertainty for many public servants is the introduction of what seems to be parallel contractual positions for the jobs they hold. This practice has increased over the years since the introduction of the Regional Health Authorities which placed doctors on contract. Some say the non-renewal of these contracts on occasion, has been exercised on whim or on the personal views of an executive member of the organisation instead of an appraisal of the fitness of the professional to fill the position.

The uncertainties faced by local doctors while there is a shortage of medical staff in our hospitals is a matter of public interest. Are there pathologists here, for example, who are qualified but whom the RHAs refuse to hire? This is while dead bodies pile up, post-mortems, post-mortem reports and court cases are delayed? A citizen should be able to enquire what is taken into account when a doctor who may have devoted a decade or more of his/her professional life in service of our country, is simply advised that his/her contract will not be renewed.

Similar uncertainties face persons currently working in many Ministries or Government Departments. If contractual positions are to play a greater role in the management of these agencies then the public as well as those affected have a right to know. This shift of policy in the workplace directly affects all of us.

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Matters like these should not remain in the dark. Sir Jeremy Bentham an iconic (to use a modernism), English legal philosopher compared government secrecy with open government, stating that the latter possesses “...strength, a hardihood and a reputation which would render it superior to all the dissimulations of the other...”

One of the early American cases dealing with the Freedom of Information legislation of a particular State, said that the basic purpose of the FOIA is to ensure an informed citizenry which is vital to the functioning of a democratic society. It keeps government accountable to the governed.

It seems to me that we cannot sit back and simply blame the media for “fake news” and for the regurgitation of official press releases when there is a way for us to legitimately find out more about the decision making process within our government agencies. Proactive is a word that everyone loves to use so why not be proactive instead of simply talking about it.

I encourage use of the Act and Government agencies should welcome these applications. It means that citizens are prepared to seek information to which they may be entitled, lawfully. Someone making a lawful request under the FOIA is far preferable to a disgruntled rogue element trying to hack into government information systems.

Thriving democracies tend to show a lively use of the process. Countries like Singapore and to a lesser extent Malaysia, which we hear touted as some sort of ideal do not have democratic mechanisms such as these. At the end of the day it is for us to make our democracy alive and lively. No one else is going to do it for us.

Sophia K Chote SC is an Independent Senator

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