By C ben-David

Secrecy, being an instrument of conspiracy, ought never to be the system of a regular government” (Jeremy Bentham, 1839).

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The front page headline story “Share Data” in the March 16 edition of Searchlight newspaper in St. Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG) was a painful reminder of how difficult it has been for me as a social scientist to access local data freely available to one and all in most democratic countries.

The theme of the article was the OpenStreetMap (OSM), a global non-government project that began in 2004 to create a free editable map of the world containing all manner of verifiable information collected by and from a number of sources, including governments.

According to Camillo Gonsalves, SVG Minister of Information Technology, who argued at an OSM workshop on March 12, 2018, “We need a voluntary system [among SVG’s public servants] and not something where people have to coerce someone to give them data [collected by the state].”

Minister Gonsalves opined that government functionaries often do not share data with the public fearing that, “Why are we making that public? We don’t know what is going to happen to it when you let it go; somebody might do something evil with the data.”

The current lack of access to government data is far worse than the Minister implies because there is no freedom of information legislation in SVG that would coerce the government to release even the most uncontroversial information that is not voluntarily given.

The question both researchers and ordinary citizens need to ask is “why all the secrecy?”

A good example is the annual Digest of Statistics, a report containing a wealth of information on population, transportation, communication, education, tourism, finance, trade, crime, and other areas compiled by a department over which Minister Gonsalves has overall control. The last online report appeared in 2012. The only previous report was dated 2004. Under previous regimes – including Labour Party governments — going back to colonial times, annual reports were available in printed form within 12 months. The same holds true for the many other government reports, including independently audited line item budgetary spending on projects like Argyle International Airport that are never made available to the public. Why all the secrecy, if there is nothing to hide?

Another example is the lack of access to the government email addresses of the various ministers of government, a commonplace listing in many governments around the world. To be sure, such emails would be first perused by an assistant who would redirect them to the minister or other personnel based on an established protocol. Why the lack of communication, if not accountability, to the voting public that this implies?

A personal example of these issues involves the 2016 and 2017 SVG visitor arrival statistics posted on the Tourism Authority web site, both of which were so sloppily formatted that they were almost impossible to read. Despite no fewer than seven emails to various functionaries in the 31-member Authority, including its three statisticians, during the last week in February, I received neither an acknowledgement nor the requested correction.

Whether ignoring my request (which would have involved a minor reconversion from the original EXCEL to the posted PDF file) was the result of sloth, incompetence, or indifference, I cannot say. Whether it was rooted in petty vindictiveness based on the possibility that I “might do something evil with the data” by employing it in one of my critical Argyle International Airport essays, I also cannot say.

What I do know is that it was surely not a product of the lower-level bureaucratic inertia and unaccountability implicit in Minister Gonsalves’ statement: how many public servants would be willing to exhibit a fearless sense of independence from their political masters in the absence of union solidarity and strong whistleblower protection? That civil service underlings operate under the wing, if not foot, of their senior appointed bureaucrats and elected government ministers has just been succinctly explained by someone who should know, Jomo Thomas, Speaker of the House of Assembly, who rightly pointed out “the wretched state of our [government] trade unions” in his March 16 weekly column in The Vincentian newspaper.

In little SVG, as elsewhere in the Caribbean, when it comes to the free public access to government data, the buck both starts and stops at the top levels of the political hierarchy.

The views expressed herein are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the opinions or editorial position of iWitness News. Opinion pieces can be submitted to news.iwitness@gmail.com.

5 COMMENTS

  1. I too wish to know ‘why all the secrecy’. In 2016 I visited SVG and made contact with the chief personnel at the main hospital for information about the types of machinery in use at the hospital; namely whether or not the hospital had a machine which facilitated MRI scanning. This was to determine if my mother would be able to access long term care as one recovering a surgery to remove an optic nerve tumour. This is the type of information the discharging country where she had performed the surgery was requesting. I was point blank told they could not provide me with such information nor any statement in writing which could potentially make the country ‘look bad’ and was redirected to some public access website with general descriptors about SVG. I was also told I could contact the PM to see if he could help… imagine this type of bull shit. I was wondering should a list of the hospital’s functioning facilities not be publicly accessible information if requested? I wasn’t asking for patient personal data nor staff personal information. I was left only with the option of a willing medical practicioner who had treated my mom and who consequently agreed to write a letter confirming the nature of the care which would be required and the lack of appropriate facilities for such care in SVG- the letter was not free but by no means coercion for any distortion of the truth just for the record for those of you who may want to add your own analysis- it was a simple letter addressed to the relevant party stating the facts and signed by the practitioner.
    From my personal experience whilst there and the reports of other people I know who have tried to access information for other reasons I have come to the conclusion that something is amiss where secrecy appears to cloud almost every single government owned/ managed agency. May God have mercy …

    • As a professional researcher, my view is that there has been far less concern about, provision of, or access to government data under this regime than any other in our history going back to early colonial times.

      From my professional perspective, this has been the most secretive post-colonial government ever which is very frightening because it begs the questions, “what has this administration got to hide and why are they hiding it?”

      As a pipsqueak little country few have ever heard of or care about, a have-not non-entity with no military secrets, espionage secrets, or strategic interest secrets, the level of secrecy is very nefarious, to say the least.

      • C.Ben-David, I’m still trying my best and just can’t figure you out. I hope that your book is published soon, seeing that you like to write so much. There doesn’t seem to be a benevolent or otherwise, topic concerning SVG that you don’t rip to shreds. I also checked and it appears that it is not only here (IWN) that your spread your views. You do it also in quite a few Caribbean publications on the internet (caribbeannewsnow.com; muckrack.com; ). You are surely convinced of your own right to do what you are doing. Frankly, I think that you are doing a greater disservice than benevolence to our proud but struggling SVG. Sometimes you make good points but only to strengthen your disdainful lecture on everything that is SVG. You say that you want to educate the people. You say that you love the country. I would have believed that if I had not seen that you were badmouthing SVG in other Caribbean publications. As it is, you appear to be shooting yourself in the foot every time. I’m sure that you will have a saucy rebuttal to this but, that ‘s okay.

  2. “The Lord has blinded their eyes and hardened their hearts–so that their eyes cannot see, and their hearts cannot understand, and they cannot turn to me and have me heal them” (John 12;40).

  3. In response to “r,” our sacred 1979 Constitution gives me the right to “badmouth” SVG if it pleases me to do so as long as I do not violate the potential legal restrictions on my free speech as outlined below in 10(2)a and b.

    “10. (1) Except with his own consent, a person shall not be hindered in the enjoyment of his freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions without interference, freedom to receive ideas and information without interference, freedom to communicate ideas and information without interference (whether the communication be to the public generally or to any person or class of persons and freedom from interference with his correspondence).

    (2) Nothing contained in or done under the authority of any law shall be held to be inconsistent with or in contravention of this section to the extent that the law in question makes provision-

    a. that is reasonably required in the interests of defence, public safety, public order, public morality or public health;

    b. that is reasonably required for the purpose of protecting the reputations, rights and freedoms of other persons or the private lives of persons concerned in legal proceedings, preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, maintaining the authority and independence of the courts or regulating the technical administration or the technical operation of telephony, telegraphy, posts, wireless broadcasting or television; or …

    and except so far as that provision or, as the case may be, the things done under the authority thereof is shown not to be reasonably justifiable in a democratic society.”

    ***

    If I am adversely affecting the reputation of SVG, as “r” claims, this is not prohibited by 10(2)b since the country of SVG is an inanimate entity, not a living person.

    If I am adversely affecting public safety or health, as listed in 10(2)a, then this is surely my own safety and health from the many posters who have insulted or threatened me with physical harm.

    I look forward to being charged by the DPP with breaching the public order by defaming my own reputation in such a way that would cause others to seek to do me physical harm.

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