LESSONS IN DEMOCRACY PART II by CHARLES WILKIN QC
In my first commentary in this series on lessons in democracy from the current controversies over governance in the USA, I focused on the abuse of Facebook and social media in attempts to brainwash voters. I will in this commentary focus on the traditional media.
The media is an indispensable element of democracy. No country can claim to be a true democracy without a strong, independent media. An independent media is as important to democracy as any branch of government. It is crucial to the exercise of the fundamental right of free speech. It is crucial to the right to information, another fundamental right. The media is meant to inform the public and to stimulate public interest and discussion on important national issues and to provide a platform for the public to engage in such discussion.
Investigative journalism is another of the key duties of an independent media including investigation of the operation of government and the conduct of those who exercise power. The media has a duty to ask hard questions and to hold them accountable. Those who exercise power have no trouble getting their message out. The electorate relies heavily on the media for its information and to check the truthfulness of political messages.
There is often a combative, even antagonistic, relationship between politicians and the media. That is good for democracy. The media is doing its job when it is regarded as a nuisance by those in power. Governments, sometimes openly, sometimes subtly, seek to manipulate, cajole, threaten and discredit the media by the use of government resources and power. A country needs a strong media to resist such attacks, open or subtle. It should also be recognized that it requires great bravery for a media practitioner to act independently in his or her reporting on powerful public figures. It is not easy to speak truth to power but democracy needs that.
Media practitioners have a heavy responsibility to the public to report fairly and impartially and to act properly, professionally and independently. They are obliged to respect the rights of those on whom they report. The media in every country sometimes acts excessively but that is far less dangerous to democracy than having the media silenced or diminished. The media comprises human beings hence it is as vulnerable to politicization and tribalism as is the rest of the society. However competing views are healthy for democracy. A widely read, educated and savvy people which is also a key to democracy should be able to recognize excesses in the media and the abuse of media power. If the people are not widely read, educated and savvy they can be sitting ducks for the media as they are for the politicians.
The key facet of the media in the USA from which we can learn is the strength of its investigative journalism. Our media is far less developed in this key area. Independent media is relatively young and limited in St. Kitts and Nevis but thankfully it exists. Up to 25 years ago all we had pretending to be media were the political party rag sheets and the government controlled media of ZIZ. More on ZIZ later. The independent media here is playing a growing and important role. It does not however have the resources that US media outlets have hence investigative journalism is limited. It is important to the health of our democracy that this feature be strengthened and that more of our nationals obtain top quality training in journalism.
Another feature of the media in the USA is the extent and frequency with which the media obtains truthful information from sources within the government. In the first commentary I mentioned the importance to democracy of whistleblowers and the need for legislation to protect them in the disclosure of wrongdoing. I hope that the Freedom of Information Act which is being put before the National Assembly here will include provisions to protect whistleblowers. Leaks and whistleblowing are helping the media in the USA to carry out its critical role. They may well be the saving grace for US democracy. The more open and transparent a government is the less the need for leaks and whistleblowing. Leaks and whistleblowing are perfectly acceptable in a democracy to expose lies and misfeasance within government. Leaks and whistleblowing are important to expose autocratic or anti democratic behavior by anyone exercising public power.
Now to ZIZ. ZIZ remains what it always has been, the total mouthpiece of the Government in power with minimal if any access to the Opposition and with tight control of programming. The same applies to the Government controlled media service in Nevis. That continues despite the several rulings of our courts which have declared that, as part of its fundamental right of free speech and right to information, the political opposition and the public generally are entitled to genuine access to Government controlled media. Despite their manifesto promises the Unity controlled Federal Government and the NIA have been slow to practice what they preached and sued for when in opposition.
I will in the remainder of this commentary focus on another important contributor to the effective functioning of the media which we are lacking to the detriment of our democracy, namely Freedom of Information legislation. Such legislation is intended to allow the public, including the media, to exercise its fundamental right to information. It gives every member of the public the right to ask government for information on matters of public interest. It provides effective mechanisms to secure that proper, ample and timely answers are given. The right is not absolute. The legislation provides a balance between information which should genuinely be within the public domain and information which should in the public interest remain confidential. The information which remains confidential falls within several categories including some (but not all) information relating to law enforcement, defence and security, diplomatic relations and commercial information. And of course the right does not apply to personal information about private individuals.
FOI legislation should have rules to facilitate requests for information covered by the Act and the process for prompt responses by the government officials or bodies to whom a request is made. There should be a government official, usually called an Information Commissioner, who is appointed to oversee the proper implementation of the legislation. The legislation should require each and every Government department to report annually on the measures it takes to give effect to the legislation.
However, the attitude of Government Ministers and senior civil servants to the effective implementation of the legislation and their respect for the underlying fundamental rights are as important as the legislation itself. The example of ZIZ to which I have referred is a clear example that those in power can frustrate any democratic process unless held to account by the media and members of the public.
In the hope of stimulating public discussion on this subject I will set out a few types of questions which a properly worded Freedom of Information Act would permit to be asked of government.
- Questions relating to the processes used or not used for the award of government contracts would be legitimate questions.
- So would questions relating to the expenditure by Government of budgeted monies.
- So would questions relating to any Government policy on any matter of public interest.
- So would questions relating to the delegation of Government power to private entities as was done under the Citizenship by Investment programme.
- So would questions relating to Government debt.
- So would questions relating to the issue of diplomatic passports under the CBI. The public is entitled to know the names of all the economic citizens who carried our diplomatic passports even if the passports have been withdrawn.
- So would questions relating to the operations of the Electoral Office.
- So would questions relating to the operation of Government controlled entities other than confidential information relating to genuine business transactions.
- So would questions relating to the use of public healthcare facilities by private entities for medical research
In some countries FOI legislation covers non governmental bodies which carry out a public purpose, for example sports bodies which enjoy exclusive control of a sport and select a national team. The countries in which West Indies Cricket Board, or whatever it is now called, operate should extend their FOI legislation to make that board and national governing bodies in other major sports subject to public scrutiny. These bodies handle substantial public monies, use public facilities at little cost, enjoy hefty tax exemptions, select teams to represent the country and otherwise exercise enormous power. They are the face of the country in the sporting world. They should therefore be accountable to the public for their financial affairs and performance. We have of late seen so much corruption and so many scandals and crimes committed within international sporting bodies. We are seeing right now how the International Cricket Conference is snubbing its nose at Caricom in order to protect WICB from being held fully accountable to the Caribbean people and reforming itself for the benefit of regional cricket. These international bodies behave like States in their own right and a law onto themselves. They attract men with that propensity. The West Indies Cricket Board should also be subject to forensic audits and investigation by the countries in which they operate. Only then will they be brought to heel.
I hope that in the not too distant future the people of St. Kitts and Nevis will be able to exercise their fundamental right to information given by the Constitution of St. Kitts and Nevis and human rights treaties to which our country is party. The Government should not delay any longer the passage of Freedom of information legislation (including protection for whistleblowers) and free up the government controlled media all as they promised in the last election campaign to do.