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09.01.2010 | Aleksandra Matvyychuk

Freedom of information v. secrecy of archives: brief impressions

   

On 9 December 2009 the Kharkiv Human Rights Group [KHPG] ran a seminar for heads of the archives of regional divisions of the Security Service [SBU] on Freedom of Information and Access to Archives. The programme covered fundamental issues like the concept of freedom of information; basic principles of freedom of information; legal frameworks of freedom of information and exceptions to public access to information.

It should first of all be noted that the seminar was initiated by the management of the Branch State Archive of the SBU. During the discussion the Head of the Archive Volodymyr Vyatrovych and his Deputy, Alina Shpak responded on the stated issues as though they were representatives of the organization Article 19. One must, admittedly, acknowledge that such a “progressive position of the management” was shared by a minority of the seminar participants which became most noticeable when the audience was one to one with the speakers.

Then the most interesting part began, and the point is not even in the fact that a large number of the participants, having worked for many years in the archives, saw secrecy of the criminal investigation as an absolute principle.  What came to the surface was also the entirely understandable desire of people to avoid responsibility and not take decisions by themselves: “we’re a militarized service, give us an order or instruction which covers all cases and we’ll work in accordance with them”. And it is a bit strange to hear from the lips of a civil servant of an independent country assertions that they need to receive permission from Russia’s FSB [Federal Security Service] to open archival files.

One of the materials used during the seminar was the practical manual “Freedom of Information: Theory and Practice” drawn up specifically for civil servants.  An interesting example was given in the context of the defence of the rights of those providing information, the case of Katharine Gun. She worked as a translator for the UK’s Government Communications Headquarters [GCHQ].  At the beginning of 2003 she received a copy of an email with US official detailed plans to bug diplomats of member states of the UN Security Council.  The USA and UK needed to receive a decision from the Security Council to sanction their invasion of Iraq. Ms Gun was shocked by what she read and passed a copy to the Observer. The governments of both governments experienced great embarrassment as a result.

I mentioned this case during a coffee break, talking with younger SBU archive officers and immediately heard that in Ukraine after that you would at least end up without a job, or have even more serious problems. In fact, Katharine did lose her job, and was accused of spying to boot. She was not protected under British law, and the charges against her were only withdrawn because the British Government could have run up against a lot of difficulties if it had been obliged to present to the court the confidential legal advice used in support of the invasion of Iraq.

Ukraine is indeed far removed from the UK. However each head of a regional archive knows that his archives under the stamp “secret” contain whole piles of documentary evidence about such Ukrainian Katharine Guns who, in retaining their self-respect and upholding the principles of honour and dignity, paid with more than just their jobs.

It is generally known that people actively listen in only two cases: when it’s useful and / or interesting. However good a specialist the representative of the Canada-Ukraine Grain Project may be, his impassioned speech about the need for a loan for the agricultural industry will not touch the hearts of workers of a garment factory. Yet if during the New Year holidays the garment factory employees en masse storm Mount Hoverlia, the same audience will listen to each word of the elderly guide, however inarticulate he is, if he just begins: “An avalanche is on its way and we are in danger. However don’t worry, I’ve been descending this mountain for 20 years, just listen carefully and carry out my instructions…”

It must be acknowledged that the staff of the regional archives didn’t find it useful or interesting. From the seminar they expected mainly specific instructions and directives in their work with archival documents. And lack of understanding as to what is freedom of information and why society and they themselves need it was demonstrated at the stage of determining the advantages and dangers of freedom of information, the culmination being the assertion: “People don’t need freedom of information”.

It is precisely with this lack of understanding that work is needed. Only when all archival staff realize that they are first and foremost not civil servants, but people; that, regardless of their position, type of activities, political convictions, etc, universal human values, remain inviolable, these including the right to freely gather and circulate information, enshrined in Article 34 of the Constitution, and that this right is like oxygen for a democratic country on which their life and that of their families depends, only then will many issues pertaining to specific instructions and directives in work with archival documents be resolved.

Such educational work with civil servants needs to be continued. This is an extremely important direct and specific kind of challenge for civic organizations since our government in the 18th year of independence is only now beginning to declare its readiness for systematic work which has thus far been based on the isolated efforts of certain enthusiasts regarding the reinstatement of historical truth. Therefore the word “declassification” and the name of the relevant department of the SBU Archives which was the topic of discussion at the seminar has not so much a legal, as an essential nature. “Of course I agree that from the legal point of view it is correct to say “review of archival files”. However what percentage approximately of files with the stamp “secret” or “top secret” after review do you move to open access documents? The answer: around 95%.

It is a priority task for our society to recognize the true significance of freedom of information. After all it was Socrates who asserted that to know what is good is to be good. This is how the knowledge which determines our behaviour differs from information.

It is this recognition which will render irreversible reforms initiated by the management of the Central Archive of the SBU and ensure freedom of information from the dangers of political snowfalls as the result of any change in political course. Incidentally it was precisely this feeling that was demonstrated by one of the participants in an anonymous questionnaire. The person answered the question: “Which necessary questions remained outside the programme” with the words: “Our work’s direction after the presidential elections.”

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