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Freedom of information act. A spark for transparency, accountability

It has been an interesting week, perhaps trumped, by revelations Prime Minister Tuilaepa Dr. Sa'ilele Malielegaoi wrote to the Ministry of Justice and Courts Administration C.E.O. on a matter before the Supreme Court.

And the position of the C.E.O. Moliei Simi Vaai – in response to questions by the Samoa Observer – that Tuilaepa’s 9th March, 2020 letter that raised concerns about criminal defendants’ bail procedures were “valid”.

Moliei’s comments were published in the Thursday, May 7, 2020 edition of the Samoa Observer with the C.E.O. also confirming she responded to the Prime Minister. 

But you can be assured that the public at large, wouldn’t have known of the Prime Minister’s contentious letter, if it was not obtained and published in the Sunday Samoan last weekend.

The correspondence, yet again, showed Samoa and the world how vulnerable our Judiciary is to the Executive arm of Government. 

Hence we can only ask again with concern, whether it foreshadows what is to come, courtesy of the Government’s proposed legislative changes to the structure of the Judiciary?

Coincidentally, tucked away in the same edition, was a story titled, “Freedom of Information Act in the works.” The article quoted the UNESCO Pacific Director, Ms Nisha, advising that the Samoa Government has started work on a freedom of information act. 

“UNESCO will be providing technical assistance to (Ministry of Communication, Information and Technology (M.C.I.T.) through the India-UN Development Partnership Fund supported programme, Samoa Knowledge Society Initiative,” Ms. Nisha said.

“In terms of policy and law work, since these are national instruments, they are always led by the ministry or the government institution responsible for policy-making and initiating the law drafting process. In this case, the work is led by the M.C.I.T.”

Ms Nisha emphasised the significance of access to information for a state’s development and cautioned of the repercussions of lack of knowledge.

“Access to Information is a key enabler of development. We live in a fast changing world where lack of information or knowledge may contribute to marginalisation.”

We welcome the formulation of any new government policy that will lead to openness and accountability of Samoa’s decision-makers, and should in the long-term become a tool to prevent and fight corruption.

The proposed freedom of information (F.O.I.) legislation, which the M.C.I.T. is working on with technical assistance from UNESCO, has the potential to become the light at the end of the tunnel to move our bureaucracy away from a culture of “silence” to one of openness about the Government’s policies and decision-making processes.

What is there to hide for a democratically-elected government that is given the mandate by the people to govern and ensure citizens are active participants in their decision-making processes; their rights as citizens are protected; and the rule of law is applied equally regardless of race, gender, nationality, colour, ethnicity, religion, disability or sexual orientation?

Currently, only three Pacific Island countries have freedom of information laws.  The Cook Islands passed their legislation in 2008, Palau in 2014, and Vanuatu recently in 2016. Samoa’s Constitution does not have provisions on freedom of information, but does recognise freedom of expression in Clause 13 (a).

UNESCO is no stranger to providing technical assistance on F.O.I. legislation to member states, having been given the mandate in its Constitution to “promote the free flow of ideas by word and image.”

We urge the M.C.I.T. and the Government to capitalise on this opportunity and use the assistance provided by UNESCO to formulate legislation that will ultimately benefit our country. 

While we know that it will be a long road to walk, before agreeing to a draft that truly represents the wishes of the people, we believe the principles behind taking that path should not change. 

A freedom of information law should ensure government authorities are legally obligated to give citizens access to information about their decisions and policies, and citizens have the right under law to request that information from authorities.

The events of this week, relating to the Prime Minister’s letter to Moliei and other official government documentation, justifies the need for such a law to enable citizens to know about the decisions and policies of leaders in Government and how they could affect their lives.

In our line of work in the media, we understand and appreciate that an informed society is an empowered society, which is why we strive to give our 110 per cent to ensure the news content we produce on a daily basis is based on facts and is balanced. 

However, we remain skeptical of the decision to announce work on such a criticall legislation, 12 months out from a General Election and hope it is not a political gimmick. 

At the end of the day, we hope the M.C.I.T. work on the F.O.I. legislation comes to fruition to promote and ensure a transparent and accountable Government for Samoa.

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