The right to know
Democracy assumes the existence of an opposition whose members keep an eye on the government’s policies and actions. They identify and condemn its sins of commission and omission. They cannot perform this function unless their right to know is acknowledged and allowed to be exercised.
A public service announcement on a television channel tells us that those who kill journalists have been robbing us of our right to know. We may ask what kind of information it is of which the killers have been depriving us. Surely no one is stopping us from ascertaining whether Aristotle’s objections to Plato’s reasoning in his celebrated work, The Guardians, are viable. The journalists who have been killed during the last 10 years or so were not reporting on esoteric issues. They were telling us their perceptions and interpretations of ground realities, mostly in the political arena.
The right and entitlement to know go together. If Zayd asks Bakar how frequent is domestic violence in his household, the latter may tell him that it is none of his business. But if a judge asks him the same question in the course of a divorce suit that his estranged wife has filed against him, he will have to answer it truthfully because the court is entitled to have this information.
Until about a couple of hundred years ago, conventional wisdom had it that kings best understood the business of the state and its requirements. Raison d’Ã‰tat (reasons of the state) were beyond the ordinary citizen’s concern or reach. But that is no longer the dominant view on the subject. In democracies the people are said to have the right to know what their government is doing with regard to a certain matter and why. There are of course exceptions to this rule. Most countries have a law (something like an Official Secrets Act) that forbids public officials from disclosing certain categories of information, usually because such disclosure would adversely affect the security or other vital interests of the state. That is the reason often given by British ministers for declining to answer questions asked by members of the opposition in the House of Commons. Governments generally prefer secrecy to openness except where they expect applause for their performance.
A couple of problems connected with disclosure of information should be noted. Certain types of happenings or transactions are intended to be kept secret and they may not be made public until the archives are opened up 20 or more years later. This is, for instance, the case with diplomatic negotiations between governments. In domestic politics and governance also public officials and politicians may not want the generality of the people to know the understandings or deals they are making with friends and adversaries. The people have to assume that the persons they have placed in positions of power must of necessity be trusted. That is so even if they know that this assumption is not entirely well founded. Nor may we assume that all of the people are interested in knowing everything that their government may be doing. Farmers may want to know if agricultural incomes will be taxed and subsidies retained or abolished in the next year’s budget. But they are not concerned with the government’s plans for the extraction of coal from the recently discovered deposits in Sindh. Nor are they curious about its reasons for increasing the salaries and allowances of judges.
In actual practice the people’s right to know is exercised by the media; its operators tell the people what they think is newsworthy. A great deal is happening in their own country and the world outside. They have to be selective in deciding what to report. If things are going reasonably well, that is not news. It is news if they have gone wrong or if something unusually hazardous or amusing and entertaining has taken place. More often it is bad news that is considered fit to print. Their versions of events contain their interpretations, which in turn are coloured by their value preferences and biases. They are thus makers of public opinion. Curiously enough, General Pervez Musharraf allowed the media considerable freedom of expression, presumably because he thought that their criticism of his rule would not hurt him in as much as his support came from forces other than public opinion. He was probably wrong in making this assumption, for in the end it was public disapproval that forced him to quit. Musharraf’s successors are a great deal more sensitive to the media’s reports and interpretations of their governance. Certain newspapers and television anchors have been particularly watchful and fiercely critical of the present government’s corruption and incompetence. It has retaliated by adopting punitive measures against them. This has not silenced the critics. A few days ago President Zardari burst forth with a harsh condemnation of the media and declared that he was not scared of their adverse comments on his performance, and that he was going to continue to act as he deemed fit. Apparently it does not matter to him that according to a recent poll his approval rating nationwide has fallen to 11 percent of the respondents.
We may now ask what the people are likely to do with the information they have received. An expectation may be that it will help them make their choices in the next election. We hear also that certain politicians and parties have vote banks in constituencies where their support is based on family connections and ethnic considerations. We should also look at the other side of this coin. Democracy assumes the existence of an opposition whose members keep an eye on the government’s policies and actions. They identify and condemn its sins of commission and omission. They cannot perform this function unless their right to know is acknowledged and allowed to be exercised. The same holds for commentators on public affairs and various other organs of civil society.
The writer, professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, is a visiting professor at the Lahore School of Economics. He can be reached at email@example.com
Source: Daily Times