Under the deluge of data and detail, Trinidad and Tobago remains a society run by the old privilege of “contact” with power rather than the individual’s right to information.
Know the right person and all is yours; demand your right to know and chances are you will hit the wall staring back at you with anything from dumb to outspoken insolence.
From the lowliest counter clerk to the highest officers in the land, the official information culture is still one of access denied except to a privileged few.
In sharp contrast, the popular culture sets no boundaries, not even on the most sensitive bits of information. The same employee who would deny the customer even the supervisor’s name, or refuse the patient’s request for a copy of their own medical records, would happily spill the CEO’s beans or the patient’s medical files on any pavement during a chance encounter.
At work here are the old Siamese twins of suppression and subversion who have been remarkably resilient in the face of such post-independence novelties as Freedom of Information laws and the gadgetry of information and communication services.
The old culture has survived because we didn’t recognise its insidious nature as vectors of the old power system of public unaccountability. In our innocence, we had assumed that the armoury of freedom that we took possession of at Independence would make the difference.
We expected free speech, free press and parliamentary freedoms to invert the power equation and put us in charge. We would ask and be informed, and armed with knowledge, we would act.
The colonial culture of information has survived because, like everything else, it has seduced us with the mask of change. To one degree or another, free speech, free press and other parliament-sanctioned freedoms have been seized and subverted to the purposes of the enduring power system.
Instead of empowering us as agents of our own destiny, the information landscape is feeding our impotence and deepening our lack of confidence. The more we know, the less we seem able to do anything about it except to complain harder and louder.
No culture changes on its own. Indeed, left to itself, its natural impulses are self-reinforcing, sometimes at the risk of its own incestuous destruction. Change comes from the introduction of new viruses. Sometimes a culture will co-opt these and mutate to mimic change, thereby enhancing its chance of survival.
Sometimes, however, a culture’s only choice is to change. Which way change goes will depend on the precision of the strategic intervention which can be as much science as art.
If there is the will, every moment is an opportunity for change in search of a way.
In Parliament these last couple of weeks, the word change has hung heaviest in the air with the change of one political administration by another. As has been our repeated experience, however, not every desire for change results in change.
Sometimes there is neither will nor way; sometimes there is a will without a way; sometimes there’s a will with the wrong way; and sometimes we get lucky with both will and way.
Although it will take more than the government to change the information culture, a government could assume the leading role by anchoring its responsibility to account in the principle of the public’s right to know.
On Friday, this was the commitment given by newly-installed UWI Pro-Vice Chancellor Prof Hillary Beckles during a wide-ranging, live-streamed interview at the St Augustine campus. As a public institution, he said, the UWI must open itself to public scrutiny.
If he succeeds, the culture of that cloistered institution will be dramatically altered.
From this perspective of public accountability, it matters little how many government ministers are willing to sit in front of the cameras after Cabinet meetings. More important is the government’s willingness to open up its actions to ongoing public request, scrutiny and challenge.
From a public interest perspective, a whole Cabinet posing in front of news cameras for free PR while ducking key questions of the day qualifies as neither information nor change.
Real change, when it comes, will be reflected in the attitude of the entire apparatus of government in serving the public’s right to know—not only via the media, but directly to the individual.
Not only should this be expressed through every fibre of government but meaningful investment must be made to ensure that everyone knows their rights in dealing with the government, with clear avenues for appeal and recourse when those rights are breached.
In this context, it is already clear that the Government’s actions are at odds with its stated intentions of change in the information landscape.
The decision to merge state-owned media enterprise, CNMG, with Government Information Services Ltd indicates an intensified centralisation which is at serious odds with the need for decentralisation to bring government closer to the people.
GISL was always a mistake. Government information is a public responsibility that does not belong in a profit-driven company. It belongs in government where it is most effective through a decentralised information network spanning every point of contact between people and government.
CNMG, on the other hand, is a quantum of broadcast resources which constitute a distribution platform for content.
The decision to be made about CNMG is whether the taxpayers of T&T should be funding foreign producers in Hollywood, Bollywood and wherever, or whether our tax dollars should be invested in nurturing a potentially viable industry of our own content producers to meet demand at home and abroad.
The answer is sheer common sense.