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  1. #1
    C J Karira
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    Transparency is About the People's Right to Information

    Transparency is About the People's Right to Information

    I came across this nice article on Transparency and Right to Information.

    It is by the present Swedish Ambassador to Tanzania, Mr Staffan Herstrom. He has been a investigative journalist, a civil servant and a minister - so is in the right position to discuss both sides of the coin.

    For the information of readers, Sweden was the first country in the world to grant public access to Government documents, way back in 1766. The Sewdish constitution also has a "Right to Inform" (distinct from Right to Information).

    In Sweden, the Freedom of the Press Act of 1766 granted public access to government documents. It thus became an integral part of the Swedish Constitution, and the first ever piece of freedom of information legislation in the modern sense. In Swedish this is known as Offentlighetsprincipenand has been valid since. (The Principle of Public Access).

    The Principle of Public Access means that the general public are to be guaranteed an unimpeded view of activities pursued by the government and local authorities; all documents handled by the authorities are public unless legislation explicitly and specifically states otherwise, and even then each request for potentially sensitive information must be handled individually, and a refusal is subject to appeal. Further, the constitution grants the Right to Inform, meaning that even some (most) types of secret information may be passed on to the press or other media without risk of criminal charges. Instead, investigation of the informer's identity is a criminal offense.

    Before becoming ambassador to Tanzania, I was for many years responsible for the Swedish development cooperation with Eastern Europe through Sida.

    In that capacity I was regularly visited and scrutinised by journalists wanting to know how my colleagues and I dealt with our taxpayers' money.

    The journalists were certainly not the only visitors we had assessing our job. Reports produced by the National Audit Office sent strong signals to my staff and I, and we constantly referred to them in our day-to-day work and when reforming our systems.

    However, the fact that journalists could come anytime during working hours asking to look into our files was a constant reminder to us that accountability is there. I could any time be asked to explain my decisions and my way of dealing with taxpayers' money on TV, radio and in the print media. And I had to do that quite often, answering also to investigative journalism. This autumn, we actually had a visit of that kind to our embassy here in Dar es Salaam.

    To be honest, there have been occasions when I did not like some journalists' way of presenting an issue. But, as we all know, there is not one way of presenting a story. It is the task of journalists to look at an issue from the view of those outside of power and that means that they will not always have the same viewpoint that I have.The key mechanism for this transparency in Sweden was, and still is, the principle of public access to information, including official documents. Openness is the rule; secrecy is the exception (and the exceptions can be made only according to very specific criteria formulated in legislation). These principles are laid down in the constitutional laws for the country, giving them special protection as fundaments for democracy.

    Principles can sometimes turn out to be simple rhetoric without much substance and practical consequences. In this area the opposite is the case: Documents are registered, made available to be read by ordinary citizens and journalists in ministries and government authorities every working day - limiting in a very hands-on fashion the possibilities for politicians and civil servants to make bad decisions and hide it from the public.

    The right to information can be secured in different ways in different countries. Still I was encouraged coming to Tanzania last August, realising that a delegation with representatives from, among others, the Ministry of Information was to make a study visit to the Scandinavian countries. Not because I think you could - or should - copy. But because I think sharing experiences among democracies on this both difficult and crucial area can be extremely useful - and because I have in my earlier positions seen the very healthy effect transparency and public access to official documents can have on governance.

    What is it all about? It is about making sure that money is properly used by the Government, that responsible officials are doing the right things, and doing things right. Public access to documents puts pressure on every official to do just that. If it in addition is very costly for officials to make serious mistakes, for example, one having to leave office, maybe face criminal charges, surely money will be spent in a more efficient way in the long run.

    Transparency is obviously useful when media, civil society and citizens try to hold people in power accountable for their actions. But it also works in favour of better-informed public debates and accountability processes. During my first months here, I have primarily been struck by the huge democratic space in Mainland media - but sometimes also by the fact that it can be quite difficult to learn exactly what is the status of committees, reports, audits and other actions of scrutiny and accountability. Are they finished? Are documents handed over? Are they public? Are they made available on the web?

    The parliamentary process on the Richmond report in February was not least in this sense commendable since it made available key information to the MPs and the public --- something that at the end of the day also builds both confidence and democracy in the society. There is certainly now room for taking advantage of the momentum towards openness created in this process. Tanzanians are certainly ready for a systematic approach to transparency - build a system for that using this experience!

    The two Bills now under preparation - on the right to information and on media services - will hopefully be turned into important tools to institutionalise this culture of transparency and weaken the culture of secrecy in the areas where it is still prevailing. How this ought to be done is subject to a vibrant and - as it seems to me - fruitful dialogue between stakeholders and government with strong participation from media and civil society. I look forward to the outcome of that process.

    Personally, I have been on both sides in these matters. I have been scrutinised both as a politician and as a civil servant. I have also been a scrutiniser - during some years as journalist. And my opinion is quite clear. In the long run it is not one interest against the other. Transparency is in everybody's interest. It gives room for everybody to check what is true and false. It narrows the space for corruption and widens the space for a free debate on how to use scarce resources.

    But one must start with some fundamental ideas. Like seeing citizens as bearers of the rights to know what is going on in their society.

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    Twitter: @cjkarira

  2. #2
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    Re: Transparency is About the People's Right to Information

    we too haveTransparency International,India chapter, headed by Admiral Tahiliani for over a decade now. I wonder how much effective this organisation has been so far in its aim in rooting out corruption ,besides producing statical figures on bribery giving index,corruption index ,below poverty line index etc.etc.As individual citizens and within their own country in inter -dealings these countries have been examplary honest,be it Sweden,Switzerland,Norway,Denmark,Germany(TI originated here )or any other top advanced country,but while dealing with third world countries as suppliers,their MNCs have been most corrupt.These are hard facts. Reason,there is very very quick and harsh punishment for law breakers, irrespective who you are ,and tremendous shame in their own society. India has none,and especially if you are rich and powerful.

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