18.11.2005 | Yury Chumak

The Regime must act in a transparent manner


“A government without information being generally available,

or without the means for obtaining such information,

is nothing more than a prologue to farce or tragedy,

or, most probably, to both”.

This utterance was not pronounced by a modern Ukrainian “opposition clan member” who just recently, as a result of the Revolution, was toppled from his or her cushy bureaucrat’s number and is now trying to present him or herself as defender of the interests of the people. No, this eloquent phrase was spoken back in 1882 by James Madison, the then President of the USA. However, in the present day it cannot be said to have lost its relevance. Quite on the contrary, with the development of the information society, it has become even more topical.

The foundation of true democracy, and not that of fine words alone, is the fully active participation of the people in the procession of State decision-making. The voice of the public should be heard not only during elections when all candidates, of course, “remember” their obligations to the people, hold meetings, run hotlines, organize “public reception offices” and pour out promises, promises and more promises.  Those who live in a democratic country have the right to exercise constant impact on the servants of the people, so that the latter, in taking decisions, are guided not by their own considerations, but by the interests of those very people who voted for them.

This is possible only under conditions when citizens are involved in the discussion over important issues and questions, when these discussions are held in a transparent fashion, publicly and openly. In the United States this principle takes the name “to allow the sun’s rays in” and is enshrined in a special law and envisages the holding of the appropriate gatherings (effectively public hearings) for a joint solution to government issues.

However, in order to discuss any issues, to have ones own personal opinion about them, the vital prerequisite must be information on the basis of which our opinions may be formed. In leading democratic countries laws have been adopted on freedom of information thanks to which all residents of those countries are able to receive copies of certain documents from various State bodies, ensure that important normative acts are much public and receive the necessary responses in writing to requests for information.  The current Law of Ukraine “On information” has shortcomings, however even the possibilities with regard to access to information set out in this law are scarcely used by Ukrainian citizens.  Officials on the other hand who do, nonetheless, sometimes have to response to requests for information, as a rule consider the information held in State bodies to be virtually their own private property and more often conceal it, then issue it to applicants. They usually have little professional training in this field, and still less desire to conscientiously work on this (it being easier to write a dozen formalistic “fob-offs”, than one full and adequate response).

In addition, State civil servants and officials of bodies of local self-government should provide information on an ongoing basis about their activity and report on work carried out. This is achieved throughout the world through the creation of the appropriate press departments which issue information through information agencies, organize press-conferences for the mass media, publish press releases, etc.  In our country, all democratic innovations get built upon a post-Soviet mentality as a result of which some extraordinary hybrid monsters appear. The area of providing information to the public is no exception. In the first place, the system of “State and municipal mass media”, which had demonstrated both moral and economic bankruptcy, has been retained. Instead of objectively providing information about new developments in the State and regions, these constantly turn into mouthpieces of unadulterated propaganda and campaigning (it goes without saying, to the advantage of their “bosses”). Incidentally, the new regime had promised to radically change this and to remove State ownership of the mass media. However, as is clear, on the eve of parliamentary elections, it has decided not to deprive itself of a guaranteed piece of the media resource. An example of this can be seen in the fact that the idea of creating, on the basis of Ukrainian Television Channel 1 (UT-1), public television has remained for the time being only words. Secondly, the press services and public relations departments, created everywhere under specific State institutions, work inside a distorted information and legal field: instead of resolving how to best communicate information to the public through various forms of the mass media, they effectively engage in playing the middle man and adapting their programs to suit State and municipal needs. The remaining newspapers and television and radio institutions are forced to make do with such crumbs of information as can be gleaned from the occasional press releases.

On the other hand, the situation could change for the better (and, slowly, it is indeed already changing). However for a radical improvement, the penny must drop with State officials that the people will trust them more not when they take socially important decisions behind the scenes, secretly, and how they want, but rather when they consult with people in a considered and transparent fashion.  Not when the “electorate” is fed with triumphant fanfare and propagandistic slogans, but when they provide truthful information with explanations and details. Not when some paper or other which originated in a local administration office or executive committee, is considered virtually a “State secret”, but when documents are available to the wider public so that the people did not begin to suspect that the authorities are conning them or are involved in dubious dealings.

For this to occur, however, the public too must be more aware and demand that their servants, that is, State officials behave in a more transparent manner. For, as we know from back at our school desks, it’s no shame to not know, but it is shameful to not want to know.

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