Africa, Development & Aid, Headlines, Human Rights

COMMONWEALTH: No Democracy Without Access to Information

Sanjay Suri

ABUJA, Dec 2 2003 (IPS) - The Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting beginning in the Nigerian capital this week is committed to promoting development and democracy – both in heavy deficit among member countries. A report issued ahead of the meeting says that open government will be a key element in this process.

"Entrenching people’s right to access information is the most practical way of achieving this," says the report, entitled "Open Sesame". The document was prepared by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), a non-governmental organisation based in India.

The report asks leaders to implement immediately "liberal access to information laws developed by people and governments working in close cooperation." It says Commonwealth institutions must also put in place disclosure and information-sharing policies.

"Without this, the quest for robust democracy and rapid development will never be realised."

"Open government is notoriously absent in the majority of Commonwealth member states," the report notes. "Only 11 out of 54 Commonwealth countries have access to information laws." Others have guarantees in the constitution but few enabling laws to activate them.

Does this go back to colonial days and British rule? The Commonwealth is after all a group of countries that were once ruled by Britain. To a large extent, the answer appears to be "yes".

"Colonial authorities which owed no duty to subject populations purposefully used secrecy to signal their power and distance," the report observes. "A culture of secrecy permeated government, and systems to keep information from the public became embedded."

"Today, except in a handful of countries, governments enthusiastically retain and indeed embrace these symbols of supremacy as if there has been no intervening change from colonial to constitutional governance. Official secrets acts, preventive detention and anti-terrorist legislation, criminal defamation laws, overly indulgent contempt and privilege laws, media and privacy regulations and restrictive civil service rules all remain very much intact."

The report is asking the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting this year (CHOGM 2003) to declare that the right to information is central to democracy and development. And, CHRI will be looking to the Commonwealth to take specific steps in this regard.

It should assist member countries to design and implement effective access to information regimes.

It should also open up its own ministerial meetings and CHOGM’s "which currently remain so stubbornly inaccessible".

In addition, member countries must be required to report progress on the information-sharing front at each CHOGM, held every two years.

CHRI has also signaled that it will not be fobbed off by token efforts on the part of governments. The initiative is asking for proactive publication of information about, for example, the basic activities of government departments, their rules of operation and procedure, performance indicators and financial information, amongst other things.

"Governments do not own information," the report says. "Rather, information is a public good in much the same way as clean air, electricity and water.

To illustrate the importance of a free flow of information, the CHRI report points to countries like India, Nigeria, Pakistan and Bangladesh, where some of the worst-off populations live.

Development strategies in these states have often failed because of the closed environment between governments and donors, without involvement of the people, the report says.

"Poor people know what they want but are out of the habit of questioning aloof governments."

Governments and donors have not been willing to open up, "Yet the Commonwealth insists that it is committed to development in partnership with people and civil society."

The Commonwealth is relying on free markets and equitable economic growth to quicken development, the report notes. However, "The right to information provides crucial support to the market-friendly good governance principles of transparency and accountability. Markets, like governments, do not function well in secret."

The document adds: "The free flow of information ensures that markets work for people rather than corporations. It helps level a playing field that is currently heavily skewed in favour of big business."

Right to information laws are necessary also to "peel back the layers of bureaucratic red tape and political sleight of hand and get to the ‘hard facts’," the report says. "Armed with information, even the most marginalised of citizens can take action in their own interests."

But the means of getting that message across to the leaders at the Abuja CHOGM will be the bureaucracy itself. Like the leaders at Abuja, the Commonwealth is on test this week for its support of open governance.

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