EDITORIAL – Freedom of Information a poor substitute for free flow of information

“Give light and the people will find their own way”

Those words appear on Page 4 of every edition of the Cayman Compass as a daily reminder of journalism’s higher purpose – not to entertain or to “sell papers” but to champion the free flow of information and an open and transparent government as a critical component of a democratic society.

The motto, which forms part of our “masthead” – the list of our newspaper’s leaders and how readers can reach them – was written by Carlton Cole Magee. That 20th century U.S. newspaperman was a fearless “watchdog” who helped expose government corruption related to Teapot Dome – the most serious scandal in U.S. politics until Watergate. His words became the official motto of the E.W. Scripps Company and a clarion call for journalists around the globe.

Those 10 words sum up a truism about the officials and institutions who make laws and set policies in government offices in Cayman and abroad: Their authority is bestowed upon them not by superior force or providential intervention but by the “consent of the governed” – the people bound by those policies and laws.

Government service is different from private sector employment. It is not work done for profit, product or pure self-interest. It is work undertaken on the people’s behalf, using the people’s money, to preserve society’s common interests. The people have more than a legal right – they have a natural right – to know what their government is doing.

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In the Cayman Islands, as in many other countries, that right is codified in a Freedom of Information Law that seeks to promote or demand transparency in government.

Too often, however, the FOI process becomes a substitute for the goal of ensuring the people’s right to know. Rather than operating as transparently as possible to the public, bureaucrats focus on complying with the bare minimum under the letter of the FOI Law.

Officials have become well-versed in exceptions, exemptions, redactions and deadline extensions in the FOI Law, and how to use them to limit or subvert the free flow of information that belongs in the public domain.

The United States sets the standard for FOI laws and the government’s “weaponization” of that tool. As the Associated Press reported recently, a growing number of U.S. governmental bodies are responding to public records requests with court writs: “Instead of granting or denying their requests, a growing number of school districts, municipalities and state agencies have filed lawsuits against people making the requests – taxpayers, government watchdogs and journalists who must then pursue the records in court at their own expense.… Even if agencies are ultimately required to make the records public, they typically will not have to pay the other side’s legal bills.”

We support the spirit of Cayman’s FOI Law and its enforcement officers in the Information Commissioner’s Office (now part of the Office of the Ombudsman). Last week, in honor of “Right to Know Day,” FOI officials released their annual report listing the number of open records requests, how long government took to respond and how many requests were resolved.

In an ideal environment, those FOI reports would be extremely brief and contain extremely low figures. A truly transparent government would proactively inundate its citizens with information – no questions asked.

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