Down2Earth - An unnatural fear of transparency

“There is not a crime, there is not a dodge, there is not a trick, there is not a swindle, there is not a vice which does not live by secrecy.”
– Joseph Pulitzer

THE above is a famous quote from legendary publisher Joseph Pulitzer, in whose name the annual Pulitzer Prize for journalism excellence is awarded.

These words, which touched on the need for transparency in every government and business dealing, are food for thought on the issues that have been playing out in the public domain for some time.

“Sulit” the rubber stamp on documents has been misused from its original intention of protecting state secrets, corporate agreements and confidential information on national security, to a veil of comfort for those in power to hide their shenanigans.

Some of these “Sulit” documents include the approval for Israeli ships to call on Port Klang under a different ensign; awarding security projects worth millions to family members of a former minister, the alienation of parks in Selangor for development and even a minister’s official programme.

With the word “Sulit” no longer having the value it once had in a world where information is worth its weight in gold, strong-arm tactics seem to be employed to quell details of investigations, contracts, agreements, financial statements and minutes of meetings.

Hence, the fixation by the powers that be to look for the source of the leak instead of the incriminating evidence contained in the leak is a testament to Pulitzer’s observation of 100 years ago.

With that in mind, the events of this year are a sad testament to the public perception that our leaders are not telling us everything.

From the restructuring of the Public Accounts Committee, the transfer of two anti-corruption officers and the replacement of the attorney-general do not reflect a government which is trying its best to reduce the trust deficit.

One does not need a RM3 million public relations expert to tell you that the proposal to blackout media coverage of the ruling party’s annual general assembly and to prevent the deputy president from giving the customary address will not help improve public perception.

In the North, a state government of Competency, Accountability and Transparency (CAT) has been getting flak for failing to live up to its own standards.

On the offset, an opposition motion for public engagement and a comprehensive environmental impact assessment study for land reclamation projects should be a non-partisan proposal that receives full support from both sides of the divide.

The motion received support from at least one state government backbencher and five more who refused to defeat the motion by abstaining from voting.

Did these assemblymen vote according to their conscience for the people’s benefit or was it a case of political one-upmanship or a subtle message to some of their leaders? Only they can truly answer these questions but the move earned the wrath of the chief minister whose party and himself have on occasion called on politicians from Barisan Nasional to follow their conscience and not the party whip.

After all, in the case of Penang, how can a call for public engagement be inconsistent with a CAT government?

The Penang administration can demonstrate its sincerity in getting the people’s input on the island’s development by introducing a Local Draft Masterplan.

Development plans in Penang at the moment only call for engagement from those in neighbouring areas who will be directly affected by a particular project.

Should not ALL islanders have a stake and a say about what is happening on their island? That would be an illustration of the “T” in CAT.

In the meantime, the media which has been facing an uphill task in performing its role as the Fourth Estate, along with civil society and regular taxpayers, should not be intimidated by the criminal investigations, arrests, suspension of publishing permits and legal suits that seem to have become an expected consequence over calls for transparency and good governance.

Those who are averse to transparency should take note of another famous quote by Pulitzer: “Publicity, publicity, publicity is the greatest moral factor and force in our public life”.

However in the pursuit of the truth and getting our leaders to be accountable, one must not be sidetracked by the myth. Doing so will risk one being irrelevant or worse put in the same category of the characters we are calling upon to be accountable, where we ourselves lose the trust of those who depend on us for the truth.

As Pulitzer advised journalists: “Put it before them briefly so they will read it, clearly so they will appreciate it, picturesquely so they will remember it and, above all, accurately so they will be guided by its light”.

Award-winning journalist Terence Fernandez returns to theSun as a weekly columnist with his popular column Down2Earth. He is a media and perception consultant but still spares time for his first love, journalism. Comments: letters@thesundaily.com