One of the key aspects of a well-functioning democracy is accessible information and open communication – we see this every day, for example, in televised parliamentary proceedings and journalists reporting from open courtrooms.
There are many factors threatening this open dialogue, including – but not limited to – the rise in ‘fake news’ and distrust in ‘mainstream media’, and the exclusion of media from spaces where issues are discussed among communities.
Sure, there are events where media coverage should be barred, but then surely public access to such events should also be limited.
What’s to stop a member of the public from recording an event that media are barred from and posting it to social media?
Or posting information to a platform that not everybody has access to?
Journalism in New Zealand is often criticised by the wider public and journalists often have to defend their work. But where would we be without this open dialogue between those who read the news and those who write it?
A private invitation-only meeting was held in Carterton recently with a government official and high-ranking senior police officials to discuss an ongoing problem in their area.
Despite this problem affecting residents right across the region [not to mention the nation], this meeting was open only to those in Carterton who were affected and had received an invitation.
This sparked an interesting debate online, with posters taking the opportunity to air their views on media, local officials, government bodies, and even [in one case] their pro-Trump sentiment.
The response to the post raises a valuable question that we should all consider [although I don’t have an answer to it] – should meetings between government officials and members of the public be accessible to all?
One of the online posters commented that not everything needs to be public knowledge: “Not EVERYTHING has to automatically be made public knowledge… despite what people want to believe it’s not everyone’s god-given right to know EVERYTHING, including when and what individuals or groups or people decide they want to get together to discuss in private or by invitation only!” [sic]
What about meetings where government officials are acting in their capacity as government officials?
On the other hand, what about an open arena for people to comfortably express their opinions without fear of reproach?
The legitimacy of private meetings is a complex scenario that can be used in arguments for and against open access to information.
Part of New Zealand’s constitutional framework is the Official Information Act [OIA], which allows any New Zealander to request any official information held by government agencies.
OIA requests should be responded to within 20 business, but when different agencies need to work together for a reply, you may be waiting a while … they have the right to extend the deadline if they have an appropriate reason.
Journalists frequently lodge OIA requests in order to obtain information that’s been discussed behind closed doors – sometimes we get what we want but on other occasions, we run into roadblocks preventing the information’s release.
Some government agencies [NZTA] provide thorough responses, while others give as little information as possible based on the request [they shall remain nameless, for now].
So, the question remains, what should and should not be accessible?