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Posted: Sunday 11 August, 2013 at 7:29 PM

Press Freedom and Freedom of Information Act

Lesroy W. Williams

    Press freedom and Freedom of Information Act are like two wings on which transparency, accountability and openness in government rises to the needs of democracy and good governance.


    There is no freedom of information legislation in the Federation of St. Kitts and Nevis. If it had been seen as a priority by both administrations it would have been enacted a long time ago. Without it, the press is stifled in carrying out its work as the “watchdog of the society” and society is deprived of vital information as it pertains to what really happens in government.
    As a journalist, I have come across much ignorance from people working in government institutions and non-government institutions alike in St. Kitts and Nevis. The press is seen as an intruder, an institution that is simply “minding people’s business” rather than minding the welfare of the society. A journalist in St. Kitts can tell you that they would meet from time to time, a kind of hostility from institutional authorities for simply asking a question.
    Freedom of Information legislation would prevent this unawareness that government is accountable to the people in the social contract that has been entered into, according to the philosopher Thomas Hobbes. What is Freedom of Information Act?
    The Freedom of Information Act is a law that gives you the right to access information from the federal government. It is often described as the law that keeps citizens in the know about their government. Under this piece of legislation any person has a right, enforceable in court, to obtain access to government records except to the extent that such records (or portions of them) are protected from public disclosure for various reasons.
    For example, in the United States, Congress, the President and the Supreme Court have all recognized that Freedom of Information Act is a vital part of their democracy.
    In the United Kingdom, for example, information such as this can be accessed by the public and is no secret:
    Information relating any residential address of a member of either House of Parliament.
    Information relating to travel arrangements of a member of either House of Parliament where the arrangements relate to travel that has not yet been undertaken or is regular in nature.
    Information relating to the identity of any person who delivers or has delivered goods, or provides or has provided services, to a member of either House of Parliament at any residence of the member.
    Information relating to the expenditure by a member of either House of Parliament on security arrangements.
    Disclosure of information relating to personal assets and bank accounts.
    This legislation not only affirms the importance, but also the challenge of maintaining openness in government.
    For a few years now, I have been getting the impression that local politicians do not think that they are accountable to the people in providing them with truthful information about the ship of state. I also get the impression that government press conferences, including the prime minister’s, have become a joke; direct questions are hardly answered, a disingenuous approach is taken to serious public issues, condescension and disrespect are meted out to the press, who are merely asking questions on the people’s behalf, emotion takes over from rationalism.
    The sad thing about it is that people looking on are amazed at the gymnastics of public officials in answering questions directly and the impression is being formed that “they giving them a Douggie”.
    It is my belief and thinking that any discussion of the media today must not simply use as its point of departure a proliferation (an increase) of media houses in the Federation but must call into question the quality of the media houses, the standards of journalism and the truthful cooperation of public officials with the press. Sad to say, any sober debate on the media is often muddled by politics because of a political culture of tribalism. This ought not to be so. The independent media must not be dragged into the quagmire of political partisanship, a charge which is often leveled at it.
    It was Alexis de Tocqueville, French author of “Democracy in America” in1853, who said: “In the countries in which the doctrine of the sovereignty of the people ostensibly prevails, the censorship of the press is not only dangerous, but it is absurd. When the right of every citizen to cooperate in the government of society is acknowledged, every citizen must be presumed to possess the power of discriminating between the different opinions of his contemporaries, and of appreciating the different facts from which inferences may be drawn.” 
    A vibrant, robust and aggressive independent media must always examine its role. Its role is not that it exists for itself or to promote its own agenda. Rather, an independent media must promote the interest and welfare of society. It must be the watchdog of society.
    James Madison, American statesman and political theorist (1751-1836), who was the fourth President of the United States and hailed as “Father of the Constitution” for his role in drafting the Constitution had this to say about the press: “Nothing could be more irrational than to give the people power, and to withhold from them information, without which, power is abused. A people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with power which knowledge gives. A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both.” 
    The free press is sine qua non in any true democracy. In fact, the press is the guardian of all freedoms. In the Constitution of St. Kitts and Nevis, chapter two, under the Bill of Rights (Protection of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms), it speaks of the Protection of Freedom of Expression.
    “Except with his own consent, a person shall not be hindered in the enjoyment of his freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions without interference, freedom to receive ideas and information without interference, freedom to communicate ideas and information without interference and freedom from interference with his correspondence”.
    The media as the fourth arm of government must serve as a censor on the conduct of government in any true democracy. The press must be vigilant and scrutinizing on anything that does not redound to the welfare of the society and must serve as a watchdog against corruption.
    It is said that Edmund Burke, an English statesman said “There are three estates in Parliament but in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder there sits a Fourth Estate more important far than they all. It is not a figure of speech or witty saying; it is a literal fact, very momentous to us in these times.”
    The media has a great role in the socialization of peoples. As a provider of reliable information, ideas, opinions, it is also a transmitter of values and a shaper of attitudes. Therefore, the press must be discerning. An example: the press in St. Kitts and Nevis, as an agent of political socialization can change the political culture of tribalism that is so endemic in the society. The media can help to even reduce crime by helping to educate people, especially our young about values, ethics and responsible conduct.
    Journalist must go digging for the real issues and concerns.
    It was Abraham Lincoln that said “Let the people know the facts and the country will be safe”. 
    Because, at the end of the day, a free press is society’s best hope. 
    Roy Danish, Director, Television Information Office of the US National Association of Broadcasters 1984 had this to say: 
    “Even on the day we criticize it most, a free press is a society’s best hope to remain free.” 
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