Over the weekend, I watched Spotlight, the Academy Award-winning film about a team of investigative journalists who uncovered a story about systematic child abuse and how their society’s institutions protected the abusers. It’s an agonising—although beautifully told—story about daring to speak the truth.
But I was on the verge of jealous tears over the resources the Boston Globe lavished on its investigative reporters. In one scene, the newly appointed editor meets with the Spotlight editor and is told that this team of five journalists(!) typically take up to a year to research, investigate and write each story series.
As an old Yorkshireman famously said: Luxury.
The vast majority of the incredible run of stories Spotlight published on the Boston child abuse cover-up (200 in a year!) were records-driven. Yes, there were tons of interviews and mile upon mile of plain old legwork. But without documentation, their pieces would have been little more than hearsay, and the stories would likely never have run.
Everyone who’s spent any time at all thinking about media in Vanuatu, or anywhere in the developing world, for that matter, will instantly recognise that our greatest challenge is not the lack of investigative reporters, but the lack of solid, verifiable information.
Records, records, records. That may sound boring, but it’s the heart of who we are. Think about it: A complete, up-to-date and manageable voter registration list would likely have made it possible for thousands of new voters to be registered in time for the snap election earlier this year. Good records make good voters.
Virtually every single time I investigate an error in the media, it can be traced back to a lack of records or faulty data sources. Today’s apology by a Vila Central Hospital spokesman is a case in point. Officials released contradictory information concerning a deceased man, and that proved distressing to family members. The Hospital has taken steps to rectify the confusion. Consistent record-keeping and formal information release processes would likely have averted this.
Access to information is critical to a healthy society, and when it works, its benefits are crystal-clear.
Close cooperation between the Pacific Islands Legal Information Institute, or PacLII, and Vanuatu’s courts meant that judgments on cases of national importance were available online within 24 hours of being pronounced. This not only allowed the media to write with confidence on the topic, it meant that anyone—male, female, fish or foul—had equal access to this critically important information.
I worked for PacLII for about three years, so if I sound a little over-fond of them, it’s because I’ve seen the yeoman service they do first-hand. They continue to soldier on, year after year, in the face of institutional and governmental complacence. This is because they—and the courts they work with—understand that the right to information about the law is fundamental to democracy.
But there is so much more. Right now, departments and ministries across the government are making efforts to improve the information environment. Justice, Agriculture, and the National Disaster Management Office are all building communications roles into their day-to-day operations. Education, Health and Lands are taking important strides in information gathering.
At the centre of it all is the Office of the Government Chief Information Officer, or OGCIO. Fred Samuel has occupied the CIO position since it was created in 2011, and in that time he has overseen the creation of a number of key policies, including the National ICT Policy, which lays the ground work for the integration of technology into Vanuatu’s governance framework, and the Universal Access Policy, which mandates access to broadband internet for 98% of the population by the beginning of 2018.
Our country has made remarkable technological progress. So much so that, in 2015, the UN bestowed us with a prize recognising our exemplary achievements. But so far, our progress has been in terms of access to communications, rather than access to information.
Progress has been slower on this front. But it’s still early days. We have to have the means to communicate before we can usefully begin to define what we say and how we say it.
Draft legislation exists concerning the Right to Information. Once it’s in place, ministries and departments will be required to designate contact people within their organisation, and will have to follow prescribed processes when information requests are received.
In theory, this is a Good Thing. The presumption is that unless there’s a valid reason to protect it, all information should be available to the public.
For a journalist, this could be manna from heaven. It would help to reduce the number of I-said-it-so-it’s-true stories that have beset us recently. It would help to clarify important matters of public concern.
Imagine being able to know how the current red-eye epidemic is spreading around the country day by day.
Imagine being able to know exactly how many G-plated vehicles are on the road, and how much is being spent on drivers, fuel, and maintenance.
Imagine being able to know how many domestic violence complaints are successfully prosecuted. And how many are not.
Heck, imagine being able just to see our own national budget. Or monthly financial reports. Or half year fiscal statements. You know: the basic data about how we run the country.
A lot of this information is available already. Sort of. In bits and pieces. If you know who to talk to and where to dig. If you can get past the bureaucratic and political walls.
But a practical and useful RTI implementation would go a long way to changing the prevailing assumption that data belongs to the creator and that too much information is a dangerous thing.
Vanuatu has never lacked for communication, in every kitchen, in every bar and nakamal, in the cess of social media, in the press and on the airwaves. Some say there’s too much of it. I don’t; I just think it’s often ill-informed.
Wouldn’t it be nice, though, if we could finally talk about what we actually know?