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Freedom of Information

June 21, 2015

Should government information be kept secret?  Should it be made public?  I suppose there are valid reasons for keeping it secret, strategic reasons or personal reasons for example.  There’s also information that should be made public.  Governments should not be engaging in political activity and keeping that secret, for example.

Journalism is one way that government information could be made public.  It’s also a fair way, since news media occupy different places in the political spectrum.  However, I just read about an example of how the Government of Canada controls and limits information flow to journalists.  It reminds me of the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s novel 1984.  Journalists should develop contacts within government.  They should conduct interviews with government officials and hold press conferences with them.  If any of these conduits are blocked, government could well be too secret for the good of the public.

Recently, the Freedom of Information request has been the only way to get information out of government.  It does provide a strong legal framework and present an obligation to government departments and agencies.  Perhaps it’s even fairer than before.  However, my impression is that it’s also used as a way to conceal information from journalists and the public.

Then we have statements made to the press on condition of anonymity.  How can we judge the accuracy of this information, or the motives of this anonymous person?  We have to trust the journalist in this case.  There is nobody else.  No doubt the statement was approved by somebody in government before it was released.

What about leaks?  How many of them are real?  How many of them are fabricated to look like leaks?  The US government has been prosecuting leakers lately, in spite of public sentiment and legislation that favours whistle-blowers.  They seem to want you to turn in your colleagues, but not your bosses.  Of course, if somebody within government is sufficiently aggrieved and sufficiently motivated, one of the remedies open to them is to leak the information.  This will always happen, in the absence of better remedies.

The trend recently seems to be for governments to get into the business of publishing information.  They build up their public relations department, and decree that all information given to journalists and to the public must come from this department.  They’ve long send out press releases, of course.  Now they are putting information on their web sites, and even producing video clips.  It’s bound to be self-serving.  News media that are in a hurry or that have limited funds may be tempted to use this information, even though they couldn’t confirm it.

The ultimum in information seems to be Wikileaks.  Here we find out that governments say one thing in public but another thing in private.  Of course, they claim that everybody does it.  Is everybody deceitful?  I certainly hope that most countries are open and honest.  In practice, all countries act in their own self-interest, even if that conflicts with the principles they espouse.

Spies may obtain the same information as Wikileaks, but they keep it secret.  They can’t let their target know that they’ve been spied upon.  Sometimes they can’t even act on their secret knowledge because doing that may reveal their knowledge.  This is a shadowy world of secret knowledge.  It’s completely opposite to public access to information.  It’s a type of access that must be avoided.


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