Information is power! Solomon Islands needs a freedom of information law ASAP

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More than 100 years ago, an American Supreme Court judge reflected on corruption and transparency and proclaimed that “sunlight is the best disinfectant”. These words still hold true today. Shining a light on corruption – exposing it to the world – is the best way of trying to make sure that corrupt people cannot get away with their dodgy conduct by hiding their actions.

In practice, one of the best ways of shining sunlight on corrupt practices is through a public right to information. The right to information (RT)), or freedom of information (FOI) as it is referred to in some countries, refers to the right of all persons to access information held by public bodies. In Solomon Islands, Article 12 of the National Constitutions provides for the freedom to receive and communicate ideas and information without interference, as part of the right to freedom of expression.

Article 12 of our Constitution reflects the principle that all information held by governments and public institutions is public information that should be freely available and should only be withheld from the public for legitimate reasons. By giving the public the RIGHT to receive information about the public money the Government spends, the contracts it enters into, and the services it provides, the public – and the media – can use that information to hold officials accountable for their conduct.

The right to information is globally recognized as an integral part of the fundamental right to freedom of expression. This right can be found in article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The UN Sustainable Development Goals recognize this explicitly – SDG-16, Target 16.10 calls on all governments to “ensure public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms, in accordance with national legislation and international agreements”. Article 10 of the United Nations Convention against Corruption also requires States parties to take measures to enhance transparency in public administration, including information on its organization, functioning and decision-making processes.

More than 125 countries around the world have some form of FOI law, which allows the public to access government information and requires government bodies to proactively and regularly publish certain types of information. In the Pacific, the Cook Islands, Fiji, Palau and Vanuatu have passed FOI laws, while the Federated States of Micronesia and Papua New Guinea have developed a draft FOI law and policy respectively, which are currently under review.

Solomon Islands has been considering FOI legislation for more than a decade, in order to operationalise the fundamental right that is already found in Article 12 of our National Constitution. In 2008, the Solomon Islands Ombudsman co-hosted a Regional FOI Meeting for Pacific Policy-Makers in Honiara, in partnership with UNDP and the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat. Since that time, the Office of the Ombudsman has spear-headed efforts to work with other Government partners to develop a policy or draft law that will enshrine a right to information for all Solomon Islanders and impose duties on Government bodies to regularly publish information such as their budget and expenditures, contracts with third parties, grants and other government funding allocated to partners, project implementation reports, and the like.

On Friday, the world will celebrate International Anti-Corruption Day (IACD) which is commemorated on 9 December. IACD is not just a day of celebration but a day of action – an opportunity to reflect on what needs to be done to stop corruption in Solomon Islands.

One very practical approach is to pass an FOI Act as a matter of priority. To that end, the National Parliament and Provincial Assemblies are encouraged to work with the Ombudsman, and other anti-corruption offices such as the new Solomon Islands Independent Commission Against Corruption (SIICAC) and the Office of the Auditor General, to push forward with the current draft FOI Bill that the Ombudsman has been working on for many years. Members of the public can also call on leaders to make this right a reality.

Public information collected with public money for public purposes should be accessible by the public! Every person has a right to know what is being done by their government – an FOI law can make that a reality and is long overdue for Solomon Islands people.

BY THE OFFICE OF OMBUDSMAN


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