Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

Opinion | Transparency of information is vital to a country’s progress

Any dilution of people’s right to information puts at risk the very stability that a country seeks to achieve by being secretive

A healthy society shouldn’t have only one voice," said the whistle-blowing Wuhan ophthalmologist Li Wenliang. Accused by local police of being a rumour-monger, Dr. Li died of pneumonia caused by the novel coronavirus, now renamed Covid-19.

Chinese authorities first clamped down on the flow of information from hard-hit Wuhan in December, then relaxed it after President Xi Jinping appeared on television in late January. They have now shifted to a stance that allows only positive stories. It is easy to dismiss the system surrounding information, misinformation and disinformation in China, given that it is coming from a totalitarian state. The reality is that the nature and transparency of information and its flow has fundamentally been altered around the world over the last decade or so.

The widespread availability of the internet at the turn of the century followed by ubiquitous access to social media and the advent of a mobile internet promised an era of democratized information and radical transparency. This trend was bolstered in many democracies by legislative action for the freedom of information, often called “sunshine laws". The very first such law goes back more than two centuries to an act adopted by the Swedish parliament in 1766. The main threads embodied in that Swedish document relate to abolishment of political censorship and access to government documents. These ideas are embedded in most modern versions of freedom of information (FOI) laws, beginning with the US Freedom of Information Act of 1966. FOI laws followed in Australia (1982), Canada (1983), the UK (2000), Japan (2001), and Germany (2005). Developing countries adopted the idea as well: India (2005), Pakistan (2002), Bangladesh (2008) and Brazil (2011).

These laws are modelled on Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations after World War II, which states that “everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; the right includes the freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas, through any media and regardless of frontiers". In India, in order to follow up on the actions of several states, such as Tamil Nadu (1997) and Maharashtra (2002), Parliament enacted the Right to Information Act (RTI) in 2005. Read together with India’s own Article 19 of the Constitution that guarantees the Right to Freedom, RTI ushered in a hopeful era in which the individual right to freedom was strengthened with the right to hold the government accountable through transparency.

The promise of greater transparency, democratization and accountability has dissipated around the world. The very same technology that allows democratization has been usurped for surveillance, and a political wave around the world towards populist-nationalism ushered in by strongmen leaders has eroded that promise further. From Donald Trump in the US to Jair Bolsanaro in Brazil to Shinzo Abe in Japan, such leaders have used the power of information dissemination to upend established channels, such as the press, but have been much less tolerant of information and critiques flowing in the opposite direction. A populist will typically claim that a country’s “true people" are locked in conflict with outsiders/traitors, including the establishment elite, and that nothing should constrain the will of these true people. As populists stay in power longer, they become the establishment, the proposition reverses, and their will tends to become the “will of the people". They then believe that they do not need to listen to alternative voices, dissent, or any critique. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey (now in power 17 years), Vladmir Putin (19 years), Victor Orban in Hungary (10 years), Shinzo Abe (7 years) and Donald Trump (4 years) are now the establishment. India, too, has come under much criticism for acting against dissent. All of these, in their own way, have contributed to an erosion of transparency and the free flow of information.

In 2019, Parliament amended several terms in the RTI Act referring to the appointment of information commissioners at the Centre and in the states. These changed the terms of appointments, removed fixed tenures, and downgraded overall compensations. Beyond legal changes, the implementation of the RTI has gradually become ineffective, with little adherence to promised response times, an arbitrary rejection of queries, and various claims either inexplicably “disposed off" or refused on the tenuous pretext of provisions under the Official Secrets Act. The chief information commissioner’s position at the Centre lies vacant.

When a state arrests a single mother for allegedly authoring a “seditious" school play, or preemptively uses Section 144 to stifle a peaceful protest (unlikely to stand up to judicial scrutiny), or provides an evasive reply on the use of drones to police protests, it is clear that the belief in transparency is at a low.

To mix some metaphors at the time of a viral pandemic, an absence of sunshine will only cause the infection to spread. Eventually it will put at risk the very stability it seeks to achieve and consume those it tries to protect. India has been a beacon of pluralism and openness for long. It should stay so.

PS: “A popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy or perhaps both," said James Madison, co-author of the US Bill of Rights.

Narayan Ramachandran is chairman, InKlude Labs. Read Narayan’s Mint columns at www.livemint.com/avisiblehand

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