In the latest barrier to access to information, public servants could face disciplinary or even criminal sanctions if they share official information, even if the information is non-confidential in nature without authorisation from superiors.
This was the new year’s gift from the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) in the form of its model public service code of conduct launched on December 30.
This is quite concerning coming from a Constitutional office mandated to promote transparency and accountability. We know that the ACC works diligently to combat corruption. But now we run the risk of this simple rule undoing everything the ACC accomplished in more than a dozen years of its existence. It is advocating confidentiality to public servants.
This rule will raise many difficulties for both the media, that is trying to do its duty, and the public at large. Media and antigraft bodies work together in progressive democracies that value transparency and accountability. Information, both ways, help to curb corruption.
Of course, not all public servants are ‘chicken-hearted’ and can be bullied with threats of consequences. There have been and there will be some sensible ones who will yield to reason than simply follow the controversial terms and conditions blindly.
The other danger is that this could open the floodgates to more leaks to the media. Leaks cannot be stopped by rules. They cannot be stopped by punishment, including imprisonment. Eventually, the stories that stem from any leaks will be judged on their value as news stories and on the moral implications of the issues that they cover. And the real judges are the readers and viewers. Information is not for the media. They are the medium to inform the people.
Professional journalists do not derive satisfaction from leaks aimed at indicting people or organisations. As it is already happening in Bhutan, such information should be used only if the implications of not using it are greater.
The vision for us is clear – to be a just and harmonious society. But a society where suspicion and lack of confidence are high will only gnaw at the foundations of such a profound vision for the country. Such rules as the new model code of conduct, as awkward it is, would breed suspicion and lack of trust when the media or for that matter even the public has to come through formal bureaucratic channels to access simple information from the public servants.
But if the authorities concerned do not intervene now to minimise the damage this will do, our rights granted by the sacred Constitution and the visionary leaders could be quashed. Ironically by a rule made by a Constitutional office.