Wednesday, 27 June 2007 5:59 PM

The need to empower us all through the right to information

All around the world there is talk about the people's right to information,
freedom of information and the people's right to know and the voices are
getting louder. All of these voices refer to the same life-changing and
empowering concept - that everyone has a fundamental right to access
information held by their government.

Each and every person has a right to seek and receive information from the
government and other public bodies about their activities and the money they
are spending: from the status of a license application to the amount being
spent on malaria prevention. The government is actually under a duty to
provide people with that information unless doing so would cause serious
harm to the public.

However, despite the fact that most governments around the world have
committed to giving people access to information, the reality is in fact
quite different. Respect for people's fundamental right to information is
often overlooked in practice or treated as a very low priority, especially
in developing nations. Unfortunately today, the Pacific Island nations fall
squarely within this category, with no Island nation having a law that
provides a specific and legally enforceable right to the people to access
information.

Yet information is power. If people in the Pacific could practice their
right to information they would be empowered to know about what the
government is really doing and play a greater role in shaping their society,
economy and politics. For example, accurate information helps people at
election time in deciding which candidate is the best to represent them.
When information is not available there is a danger that people will rely
upon perceived affiliations which may or may not be grounded in fact, and
may or may not determine the actions or the policies candidates will pursue.


Around the world the benefits of having the right to information have been
seen to have many tangible outcomes. In India, the right to information was
used by poor people to find our about their food entitlements and get the
subsidized grains they were entitled to. In Mexico, it was used to find out
about the then President's involvement in the murder of students and pursue
justice through the courts. In the USA, it was used to find out about unsafe
levels of lead in school children's lunchboxes. In Uganda, it was used to
find out about the misappropriation of funds meant for children's schooling;
this information enabled the children's parents to demand the money was
spent correctly. As a result school enrolments increased significantly. In
Laos, the right to information was used to stop the building of a dam that
would displace many families.

In 2006, five countries in the Pacific - Kiribati, Samoa, Solomon Islands,
Tuvalu and Vanuatu - were named in the UN's list of the world's 'Least
Developed Countries'. Economic and social development in these countries
has been impeded by a lack of access to information about governmental
polices, programs and the allocation of resources. In these countries closed
governments have prevented communities from engaging in the development of
policies that fundamentally affect their lives.

The right to information not only benefits individuals by empowering them to
gain information from the government directly, but it can also change lives
through improving the quality of the media's work. With a right to
information, the media can be truly free, as it enables us to access
information which will keep the public better informed about the
government's actions and allowing you to hold the government account for its
unfulfilled promises and lack of action in the areas that you want.

We, the media, are in quite a unique position to influence society - we have
the power to close the communication gap between the government and its
people and to establish a more open government. Yet, without information, we
are at times forced to rely on hearsay, half-truths or unsubstantiated
information provided by a closed government. Even when information is
available to us, we may be hesitant to publicise it due to concerns of
governmental retaliation. Access to accurate information would ensure the
quality of investigative journalism necessary to provide numerous benefits
for development and democracy in the Pacific.

It is essential that we - the media - and you - the community - are both
empowered with a legally enforceable right to access information. Although
many Pacific Island nations have taken small steps towards promoting and
enabling access to information, none have actually adopted a formal right to
information law or policy. Such a law would provide the mechanisms for
people to access information and should also provide for the protection of
'whistleblowers' - those who disseminate accurate information even if it
portrays the government unfavorably.

The media in the Pacific region is a strong supporter of the right to
information. One of the three objectives of the Pacific Islands News
Association (PINA) Constitution is to promote and defend freedom of
expression and information. Various national media groups have also been
active in promoting the right to information, working with civil society
organisations and engaging governments on the issue. However, although the
media has some persuasive power with the government, it is not enough. You
the people have a vested interest in advocating for the legal entrenchment
of the right to information and you can exert great influence in beginning
the movement towards enacting a right to information law.

Therefore we are asking that you also get involved in telling your
Government to recognise your right to information. You can speak to them
directly -asking your MP for a law that makes sure government gives you
information. You can bring the issue up before elections, telling candidates
how important the issue is to you. You can also get involved with community
groups who are working on the issue.

In any case, the most important thing is that you, and those around you,
know that you have a right to information; that this right is powerful and
can help you shape the world around you; and that you deserve to have your
right to information recognised.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this letter/article are those of Alison Ryan and Cecelia Burgman, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Solomon Times Online.

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