A democracy cannot hide the truth from its citizens

2015-07-22 11:52
Jonathan Erasmus.

Jonathan Erasmus. (File)

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COMMUNICATION is key. We all know this. Advanced societies put at the heart of their existence the free flow of information.

In the United States, the Freedom of Information Act or FOIA as it is known, is an example of just what and how valuable information is to a society.

It has been used to extract anything from alien sightings to the revealing of former secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s e-mails.

In South Africa, we have similar laws and systems that allow for access to a wide range of information.

Most notably we have the Promotion of Access to Information Act, which can compel the state to release documents.

The release to the Mail & Guardian of several thousand documentsrelating to the construction of the R240 million security upgrades to President Jacob Zuma’s private Nkandla home is a case in point.

In order to be a leading society secrecy is unnecessary. The state should not be paternalistic in the sense that it believes it knows best.

We just need to look at what happened to communist Russia as a clear-cut example of this.

Soviet Russia had a stranglehold on every facet of life of each individual.

It abhorred freedom of movement and operated a censorship state, blocking everything from the West or what it deemed unfit for its population’s consumption. Modern day China, for all its wealth, is another example with the recent arrest of several South Africans for watching a Genghis Khan documentary.

The official state media claimed the group of tourists confessed to watching terrorist propaganda in China, a point vehemently denied by the South Africans who returned home on Saturday.

Xinhua, the state media agency, appears to have lied to its people for no other reason but to assert a parental role of notion of control.

In South Africa while some national government departments and large organisations may have fully functional media departments to deal with the press while conversely putting out its message to the public it is often at a local level that there is a breakdown.

Dealing with local municipalities, in particular, is a growing concern.

It is not uncommon for this paper to be contacted by residents complaining that their complaints are left unanswered, that phones listed for a state department simply ring unanswered, e-mails aren’t replied to and letters are not answered.

In many instances the only way a person gets help is by “knowing somebody” who works inside the organisation. And being in the media does not mean greater access. In some quarters we are seen as the bogeymen hell-bent on destruction.

In other instances we are just ignored. I am currently waiting for replies to a series of questions I sent to the KZN Department of Education — questions I sent two weeks ago. This is not uncommon for journalists.

Recently, I had a query lost in the ether at the Department of Environmental Affairs for six months — only to be told the issue does not rest with them.

I maintain that if a journalist battles to obtain information, a task at the centre of his or her job description, it must be increasingly difficult for the public.

This government is facing a multitude of problems many of which are historical and others that are self-made.

All of these will take a long time to overcome such as adequate housing, electricity, water and decent education but the low hanging fruit of a more open society should be seized upon.

We all have a right to know. By opening up the state’s record and empowering its ability to communicate more fluently we will springboard our development.

Sharing information should not be viewed as divisive and a political issue but rather an opportunity to empower.

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