The rights of the people not to know
In the United States’ National Football League there is a requirement which has been written into the collective bargaining agreement between the organizing body and the players’ association, and has been placed in every player’s contract. That requirement calls on players to make themselves available to the media after games and also during their practice sessions.
In the popular National Basketball Association, a similar regulation binds players and coaches to speak to the media about matters related to their profession after games. The history of American sport is replete with examples of players being fined thousands of dollars for refusing to speak to the media about matters in a sport kept alive by the millions spent by supporters
The 2013-2014 guidelines for the NBA stated, inter alia: practices must be open to reporters, either at the beginning or end, for 15 minutes; locker rooms will be open before games for 30 minutes. However, both coaches will speak before that window begins; and players must be available within 45 minutes after a game ends.
If there were no tenet of the people’s right to know, one would still believe that if the sport of basketball or American football depends on the monetary patronage of the people, then they have a right to know what is going on in the game, and to have their questions answered with some dispatch. This is the stuff of which enlightened countries are made.
But how does this concern Barbados?
There is no written or unwritten tenet in Barbados of the people’s right to know. Indeed, the general public is often treated with a high degree of disdain by those whom they elect to public office.
This is further exacerbated by the conduct of those selected into public positions who act in a manner that shows complete disregard for the general public and an unwillingness to accept that they are the servants of the people.
A recent call to the Ministry of Education to secure an explanation on a matter of public importance impacting on the nation’s children was met with the terse response from a most senior official that she did not ever speak to the Press.
Another call by a different section of the media to the Sanitation Service Authority to solicit and provide information on a matter related to the safeguard of the health of Barbadians, was also met with the abrupt retort from another senior official that she too did not speak to the Press.
In each occasion it was not a case of divulging information of national security, nor an attempt to test the now questionable intelligence of the individuals on the other lines. But it was apparent that the responses were cultural. It was quite clear that those females were operating in a framework, where as public servants, their respective craniums could not compute that their roles were not as masters of anyone’s fate, but simply as the people’s servants.
Successive political administrations have from time to time threatened to enact laws that give the media further scope to do the people’s business. But perhaps it would be more pertinent if legislation was enacted mandating that public servants were under an obligation to speak to issues of national importance on request, and to face penalties when they refused to address the concerns of the people raised through their media.
Of course, this is not to deny that the media can often be intrusive. But those who benefit from tax dollars and perform in public sector roles should not be burdened with the decision of whether to divulge information in the public’s interest. Perhaps, the decision should be made for public officers legislatively.
Though we aspire to First World status, we are still very much mired in Third World thinking. We will not move from here unless we address this frontally, and perhaps the Public Service is the best place to start.