Attack on Freedom of Information – Reaction

The following is an editorial from yesterday’s Irish Examiner. I think it’s worthwhile reproducing here because it is strong and to the point, unusual for a mostly conservative Irish media.

Could it be that there is a growing realisation of the damage being done to our democracy by corrupt and arrogant politicians?

Freedom of Information – Government failing to live up to pledges

THE insidious erosion of the public’s basic right to information is one of the more cynical faces of the current administration.
Motivated by a culture of secrecy that would not be out of place in the Orwellian world of Big Brother, this Government ranks as the least accountable ever to hold sway in Ireland.

The Coalition’s blatant disregard for basic principles of openness and transparency is reflected in the increasing exclusion of public bodies from the remit of the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act.

As revealed in this newspaper yesterday, the latest example of its shoddy denial of people’s right to know involves the Health and Safety Authority (HSA) which until recently was open to FoI queries.

Inexplicably, the lid has been tightly clamped on its work, removing its investigative activities from the public gaze.

At a stroke, workers have been deprived the right of access to information about their accidents.

This means, for instance, that where documents relating to HSA investigations of workplace accidents are concerned, a worker seeking compensation for injury will in future be denied easy access to them.

Instead, the injured party faces the daunting prospect of having to go through a costly legal process in order to ascertain the relevant information.

Rightly or wrongly, a cynic could be forgiven for perceiving the hand of powerful elements with strong political associations behind this mysterious departure.

Rather than giving people greater access to what is going on behind the closed doors in the corridors of power, the shutters are coming down. Clearly, in the HSA case, the FoI process has been turned on its head.

The question is, who is being protected? Undoubtedly, the latest change militates against the rights of vulnerable individuals.
And, arguably, it is manifestly to the benefit of powerful factions with deep pockets.

Not before time, an Oireachtas committee will next month scrutinise the gradual strangling of the FoI process with a view to making recommendations to the Government about how the system should be improved.

But the committee members would be unwise to hold their breath, judging by the contemptuous attitude of faceless civil servants towards Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly.

When she contacted officials at the Department of Finance concerning the surreptitious HSA change, about which she had been kept in the dark, the Information Commissioner was told it was up to her to find out what was going on.

That speaks volumes about this Government’s arrogance towards the public.

Originally, when the FoI Act came into force in 1997, more than 100 bodies or sensitive divisions of Government departments were excluded from its remit. Since then, 50 more bodies and agencies have been brought into the exclusion zone.

An unflinching champion of people’s right to information, Emily O’Reilly has openly complained about the exclusion of from public scrutiny.

When greater restrictions and higher charges were attached to FoI queries, it was widely seen as a deliberate attempt to make it more difficult for the average person, and the media, to access information on decisions which influence people’s lives.

As predicted, there has since been a significant fall-off in the use of FoI channels. Not only is the culture of secrecy still operating, it is flourishing.

By any standard, the cynical denial of the public’s right to information makes a mockery of Coalition pledges to bring greater accountability and transparency to governance.

The growing exclusion of public bodies from the FoI spotlight is a matter of the gravest concern.

One thought on “Attack on Freedom of Information – Reaction”

  1. What you don’t know won’t hurt you, right? Can’t you see the government is only trying to _protect_ you from your own inquisitiveness? If people knew what was going on they would only start suing, which means more money for lawyers, and we can’t have that.

    But seriously. Bush has been talking about “tort reform” in the states. He means, for example, putting a cap on the maximum payout in cases of people suing companies (it’s usually companies) for damages. A non-stop barrage of anti-lawyer propaganda should make such changes to the law of the land easier to get past the public. So, much as I have been schooled in hating lawyers, I must remind myself of the ulterior motives of those who would limit the power of lawyers (i.e. representatives of plaintiffs, i.e. plaintiffs).

    Apologies for the rant: it’s late and I am wide open to correction.

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