It was while thinking of an information/connectivity metaphor for this week’s column, last Monday’s internet blackout descended upon us like unexpected, stifling fog. Depending on where you were, mobile data also offered no opening in or to the cloud.
Before all that, the idea was to propose to readers a scenario in which there was a confluence of information flows and to point to its relevance within the context of official transparency and accountability.
Then came the blackout and how journalists feel while pursuing a story reliant on authoritative verification from both official and private sector sources.
I had been thinking that all through last week’s parliamentary hubris, the role of freely accessible public information found no space as pre-requisite to transparent procurement processes. I tried hard to follow all of it, but the rhetorical brawl provided little comfort or attraction to those interested in getting to the heart of political habits beyond recurring claims of corrupt practice.
Surely, I thought, if corruption resided in constant social orbit (“all ah we t’ief”) then at the core must reside the means for its sustenance – both the institutional and psychical conditions that permit it.
It is clear to me that a key issue in all of this is a cultural preference for secrecy over disclosure – no matter the candour of our music and our art. And, even so, to recognise that the pathology transcends virtually all sectors.
Behind this is the notion of information as a primary component of the power dynamic. Finance minister Colm Imbert addressed the challenge during the debate when he spoke of the ability of independent information and opinion in the media to “weaken the position of MPs.”
It remains one of his most truthful declarations ever, as it points to the impact on power of information expressed as knowledge (and, eventually, as wisdom). It is the gist of this column cogently and succinctly expressed.
It all came together during the sharp parliamentary back and forth, as I waited to hear the connection between the requirements of strong procurement regulations and an official predisposition favourable to openness and the more efficient flow of official information.
Recent experience as leader of a regional investigative team examining Chinese investments in the Caribbean significantly influenced my position on government-to-government projects as an area of coverage by the legislation. Whether we were talking about the north-south highway in Jamaica, housing projects in Suriname or NAPA in T&T, there was an information portal that remained tightly closed and sealed.
Zero from former Cabinet ministers, senior state officials and Chinese sources. I personally spoke with two former senior T&T ministers – on both sides of the political aisle – and they sincerely claimed to have never seen official documents in support of these investments. There may or may not have been corruption, but the conditions for it to prevail clearly persisted.
Politicians do not appear to understand how much open access to official information can help establish their case as immune to the lure of corruption. It does not reduce their power, it enhances it. Yet, just eight of Caricom’s 15 countries have access to information laws.
And, in cases such as ours in T&T, the legislation requires strengthening in order to counteract the instinct to conceal.
This requirement of modern society is now recognised as a global challenge. The standards set by both inter-governmental and non-governmental international bodies point to several clear principles.
These include the concept of “maximum disclosure” guided by a compulsion to let everybody know as much about everything as possible. An obligation to proactively disclose even unsolicited information and, promotion of the concept of “open government”.
Of course, there will be exceptions to these rules. These cover the risk of societal harm and matters inimical to the public interest. They may also include issues of national security, public safety, privacy rights, judicial action and legitimate private business concerns.
Strong freedom of information laws should also enable simplified processes to facilitate access to information, limited costs, and protection for whistleblowers. In the process, procurement practices can become far less problematic.
When minister Imbert spoke, there was uncharacteristic peace across the aisle. There was nothing more to add. He could have written the preamble to the Bill. The Opposition would have supported him.
Originally published in the T&T Guardian on December 9, 2020