Toward a culture of freedom of information

Official Information ActThere is a big difference between freedom of information and a culture of freedom of information.

That sounds trite and nitpicky, I know, but the difference in terminology has fairly major implications. In the Cook Islands there is freedom of information, but the culture of freedom of information has yet to develop.

The Cook Islands has been hailed as a pioneer in the Pacific for its passage of the Official Information Act (OIA) five years ago. But since the law’s inception, Cook Islands News journalists have been complaining that it lacks efficacy. I know. I’m one of them.

Managing editor John Woods went so far as to call the act “stillborn”.

“Our OIA itself is handicapped by lack of follow through,” Woods wrote in Pacific Journalism Review (2010).

“Our politicians gloated about being the first in the Pacific to adopt FOI (Freedom of Information) legislation but since then no resources have been applied to education, and our Ombudsman struggles with her role in overseeing the Act. In a way the Act was stillborn, but it will survive.”

I’m encouraged to see that the local Office of the Ombudsman is this week partnering with its New Zealand equivalent to run an OIA training session for MPs as a tribute to the act’s five-year anniversary.

This is the kind of effort that will breathe life into the act. It is the kind of effort that will accelerate a transition from talk to action, from freedom of information to a culture of freedom of information.

Speaker of the House Nikki Rattle this week hailed the act as a mechanism that gives members of the public a means to procure information “without struggle.”

I have enormous respect for Nikki Rattle, but I’d venture to say Cook Islands media practitioners would describe the act a bit differently than she did.

I applaud government for passing the Official Information Act five years ago. I think it’s visionary and I think it’s a bold step in the right direction. My point, however, is that it’s just the first step.

Several obstacles block the path that leads from freedom of information to a culture of freedom of information.

For one, the act gives responders 20 working days – one month – to address a request for information.

During a speech he gave at the International Symposium on Freedom of Information and Privacy in Auckland in 2002, Wellington-based investigative journalist Nicky Hager suggested the 20-day allowance decreases the act’s value.

“For requesters such as deadline-conscious daily journalists the Act is often useless,” he said.

“At least half of the time, when the response at last arrives, you find that some or all of the information has been refused – and frequently the parts you want most. This means that, in addition to the delays to date, there is no option but to complain to the Ombudsman and wait up to several months longer while the officials’ decisions are investigated and reviewed.

“Thus the effective time for responses becomes more like 50-100 working days, and sometimes longer.”

For the better part of a year the Cook Islands was entirely without an Ombudsman – a grave violation of democracy that never really attracted much public attention or criticism – and technically no office staff had the power to exercise the Ombudsman’s authority.

In practice, then, OIA requesters were unmotivated to ask questions that they fully expected to fall on deaf ears.

There’s also a tendency for bureaucrats to charge for the release of information. This is not an illegal practice, as the language of the act allows it, but I’d argue it’s ethically questionable.

I personally have paid $50 to ask a question that wasn’t answered.

Bureaucrats can pick any number of excuses to justify ignoring an OIA request. The most common seems to be the need to protect the sensitivity of a commercial relationship – say, with a Chinese fishing company, for example.

I understand this, but consider the bigger picture. At the most basic and fundamental level, government employees are employed by the taxpayers of the Cook Islands. They answer to the people.

Arguably, then, the information to which some cling so tightly was never really theirs to begin with.

“This right [to information] is enshrined in every enlightened constitution in the world, including ours, but we are stuck in a time warp where knowledge is power, and power is reserved for a privileged few,” Woods said on International Right to Know Day last year.

By continuing to run training sessions and wage media campaigns, we can resuscitate the act, yield a culture of freedom of information, and give the power back to the people.

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