Implementation of a Freedom of Information Act may not be easy, despite exemptions for withholding critical information but this does not justify its non-introduction
By Sheila Bunwaree
What started as intense advocacy and lobbying for the ‘Right to Know’ and access to information, by civil societies globally, culminated in the UN’s adoption of 28 September as the International Day for Universal Access to Information (IDUAI). When Ambassador Kemayah from Liberia, introduced the draft resolution at the74th UN General Assembly in 2019, calling for this International Day, he noted that: ‘Access to information is very essential for the democratic functioning of a society, shaping our political, social and economic perspectives; and vital for the sustainable development of countries.’ By adopting the resolution, the General Assembly endorsed a rather similar resolution, adopted by UNESCO in November 2015.
Access to information is therefore critical for enabling citizens to hold governments to account. Photo – cldc.org
The UN’s own recognition of the pivotal role that access to information plays towards attaining the Sustainable Development Goals is captured under Goal 16. Goal 16.10.2 states that access to information serves as an enabler of all other SDGs. In other words, making progress on the SDGs will remain difficult unless citizens’ ‘right to know’ is materialised. The point made by SDG Goal 16 in fact resonates with Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human rights.
S 12 of the Mauritian constitution guarantees freedom of expression. This has no doubt contributed to enhancing Mauritian democracy. It should not, however, be conflated with freedom of information particularly in this age of anger, when the convergence of multiple crises are pushing people to ask for greater transparency and accountability.
It is interesting that in his address to the United Nations General Assembly on 26 September 2020, PM Pravind Jugnauth recognizes the importance of the UN SDGs framework to monitor and measure development. Expressing concern about the various challenges that the Covid-19 pandemic has given rise to, he notes that ‘…the road to the achievement of the SDGs will be long.’ But little does he realize and/or acknowledge that the road will be even longer if opaque governance and trampling of people’s rights persist.
Is the PM aware of the centrality of ‘access to information’ as laid out under Goal 16 of the SDGs and is he willing to move towards the adoption of a Freedom of Information Act? Perhaps Prof Jeffrey Sachs’ comments at the launch event of UNESCO’s report on Access to Information in July 2019, could have been of some use. Jeffrey Sachs tells us: ‘SDG 16.10 is fundamental to the SDGs as it is about accountability, and about an honest assessment of how many people are living in poverty and attending school, of rates of deforestation and about the state of the rule of law, criminality and justice…”
Well, some people would argue that the PM has no lesson to take from Sachs or whomsoever. The culture of opacity which is the ‘modus operandi’ of Pravind Jugnauth’s MSM certainly deters him from embracing openness, thus rendering him unfit for this highly digitalized, global age of information.
The MSM-led alliance of 2014 manifesto in fact stated: ‘UN Freedom of Information Act’ sera introduit pour garantir la transparence et permettre la libre circulation des informations.’ But in 2019, FOIA disappeared from the MSM’s radar. Why? A question not too difficult to answer!
In his speech at Kewal Nagar, on the occasion of SSR 120th anniversary celebrations, the leader of the Labour Party (LP) once more reiterated the party’s intention to introduce a Freedom of Information Act. The LP had shown some keen interest in revisiting the country’s media law as testified by Geoffrey Robertson, who was commissioned to carry out a detailed study on media law in Mauritius. Referring to a conversation he previously had with Navin Ramgoolam, Robertson notes in an address to the former: ‘… At our meeting in Sept 2010, you agreed and said that you wanted the nation to have the benefit of a modern law in this field, which would fully respect human rights and provide for the greatest degree of transparency consistent with individual privacy and government efficiency…’ The intention to pursue the question of the introduction of a FOIA, figures in the LP-PMSD 2019 manifesto.
So far, promises made by all political parties at the local level have remained empty while some 112 countries across the globe have introduced some kind of Freedom of Information legislations. Having legislations are certainly necessary but not sufficient to ensure the good functioning and deepening of democracy.
Some of the reasons generally advanced for the introduction of a Freedom of Information Act include the fact that it makes it easier to combat corruption, protect whistleblowers, promote transparency, enhance accountability, strengthen the functioning of our institutions, develop a strong research culture, facilitate investigative, ethical and balanced journalism, encourage fact checking, fight fake news and disinformation, ensure that marginalised and vulnerable groups such as the ‘disabled’ for instance, get to know their rights and entitlements. In short, FOIA constitutes an important pillar of democratic governance. No wonder that its cross-cutting nature and implications for all other development goals has been emphasised under Goal 16 of the SDGs.
More than ever before, Mauritius needs a Freedom of Information Act. Mauritius’ image as a model of media freedom suffered a severe blow when the ICTA was amended to punish online communication that is deemed as causing: ‘annoyance, humiliation, inconvenience, distress or anxiety’. We are all aware of the kind of trouble and angst that many of our citizens active on social media have gone through since. On top of that, we continue to have MBC – the national TV station – which has become a propaganda machine, robbing Mauritians of the right to have access to objective and reliable information. Some private radios and journalists have been banned from government press conferences on a few occasions. We are still desperately waiting for the introduction of private TVs. These are perhaps some of the reasons why Mauritius has fallen from a ranking of 25th to 56th in 2018 on Reporters without Borders Press Freedom Index.
The triple crisis: the Wakashio ecological disaster, Covid-19, the economic downturn, have intensified the opaqueness of governance. Laws passed in the context of the pandemic highlight different coercive measures and a trampling of citizens’ fundamental human rights, inevitably impacting the SDGs. Various scandals have also been brought to light during the last few months. Large numbers of questions remain unanswered, including those related to the tragic loss of lives due to the failings at the Mauritius Ports Authority, causing a lot of misery to the nation. Parliament closed for vacation, adding to the frustration and anger in the population. Three protest marches on 11th July, 29th of August and 12th September with more coming up, are sending not only a message of discontent but one of deep distrust too.
Access to information is therefore critical for enabling citizens to hold governments to account. It also allows citizens to exercise ‘voice’ and ‘agency’ and to enter into informed dialogue about decisions which affect their lives. Resources siphoned off in dishonest ways, waste permitted unethically, policy making made in a vacuum without evidence, have a bearing on ordinary citizens’ lives – it often means lesser food available for children already in deprivation, lesser houses built for the needy and homeless, lesser quality health care and education for those at the bottom, etc.
This 28th Sept, celebrating the International Day for Universal Access to Information is therefore a good reminder that it is our moral responsibility to continue to advocate and lobby for FOIA. Implementation of FOIAs may not be easy, despite exemptions for withholding critical information but this does not justify its non-introduction. People’s Voices Network (PVN) – a newly established NGO has the ambition of advocating and lobbying in favour of this legislation.
* Published in print edition on 29 September 2020