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Freedom Of Information A Weapon Against Corruption

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FREEDOM OF INFORMATION IS THE WEAPON AGAINST CORRUPTION
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By Marc Neil-Jones

PORT VILA (Vanuatu Daily Post Online/Pacific Media Watch): Concern is rife that corruption will never really be tackled in Vanuatu unless its Secrecy law is scrapped and a Freedom of Information Law is passed.

Vanuatu currently has no law allowing the media and public to access government information and instead has a ridiculous Secrecy Law that can be used by corrupt politicians to hide behind and to refuse to divulge sensitive decisions on the basis that they are 'secret'.

Access to information is a practical shortcut to achieving the goals of poverty eradication and good governance.

Information is a public resource in the hands of the government and the challenge is to share it equitably and manage it to the best advantage of the society.

An effective access to information regime has the potential to empower the poor and other vulnerable groups of society to demand information concerning the government's pro-poor policies and ensure that their basic needs are met.

Unfortunately, in Vanuatu not only do we not have any Freedom of Information law that enables media and concerned members of the public to ask for government documents in relation to their concerns but instead we have an antiquated, unnecessary and highly controversial Secrecy Act that is open to abuse by government as no definition is given to what is secret and what isn't.

The Media Association of Vanuatu and Transparency International believe it should be repealed and replaced by a New Freedom of Information Act.

In Vanuatu the media has always had difficulties in obtaining any information on government policy, on decisions made by the Council of Ministers and on new draft bills and bills going before parliament. Policies on health and education are not easily accessible to the public, even though such information is crucial and can have such a huge effect on people's lives.

The fact that politicians and civil servants are aware that their actions and decisions cannot be scrutinised also means that public officials can much more easily engage in corrupt practices which cost the country money and resources.

Would government officials be as willing or even as able, to act against the public interest if they knew that their decisions could be examined by citizens and publicised?

There has been widespread concern for a long time from media and Transparency International that there is no public disclosure of new Acts or Bills or amendments to Acts and Bills to go to parliament. Instead in Vanuatu the public only hear about it when Parliament is broadcast live and it has already been pretty much decided as a 'fait acompli'

The public who elected Members of Parliament have an absolute right to know the content of Bills or Amendments before they go to Parliament so that MP's understand areas of concern from the public prior to any debate.

The main thrust of the right to a government endorsed Freedom of information regime is to change the culture of secrecy and aloofness that prevails in government and the bureaucracy by promoting transparency and public accountability in the working of every government department.

Right to information laws open up government records to public scrutiny, thereby arming citizens with a vital tool to inform themselves about what the government has done, at what cost and how effectively.

Lack of access to reliable information makes us susceptible to government-manipulated data, which is often used merely to suit government interests.

The right to access information has the potential of empowering ordinary people to make more informed electoral decisions and giving them an opportunity to participate more effectively in governance and policy formulation.

For example, in India, citizens have used access to information requests to find out why they were not receiving the regular rations of food from the ration shops or free public health care.

In Mexico, for the very first time, the national access to information law has been used to make public the salaries of Federal Government leaders.

In Japan, their freedom of information law was used to uncover police embezzlement.

An effective access to information Bill will immediately show returns as it will empower people to engage more meaningfully in the democratic process, increase government accountability and reduce corruption.

Furthermore, open governance along with its associated anti-corruption focus, encourages foreign investors to make long-term investments because they have more confidence in transparent and accountable national institutions and systems.

This can thereby boost economic growth and development.

A strong, open democratic government and effective information-sharing regime can also support national stability. Openness weakens perceptions of exclusion from opportunity or unfair advantage of one group over another and opens up direct channels of communication between citizens and the government.

The importance of a simple, but empowering, right to information draws attention to the fact that this fundamental right of the people needs to be properly implemented and not just consigned to the growing stack of ineffective and unimplemented laws.

A sufficient and sustained political will, backed by the chiefs and public initiative can make the implementation of an information regime extremely simple.

Such an Act or Bill to free up access to information will change the mindset of civil servants towards openness rather than secrecy.

There needs to be constant vigilance. Information is power and, in the spirit of democracy and equality, it needs to be shared freely with all people.

The Media Association of Vanuatu and Transparency International appeal to chiefs, community leaders and the government to support the need to open up access to information as a priority.


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