Are mechanisms for information access that we have now supporting a just and functional society? If not, what else?

Transcript of opening remarks by Cassie Findlay from the Freedom of information? panel discussion held in Sydney on February 29  2012.

A year on from The Recordkeeping Roundtable’s first event; ‘After Wikileaks, is is all over for The Archives?’, we return to the question of how perceptions of our right to information are changing and whether the mechanisms we have in place to give citizens access to public information are actually properly supporting a just and functional society. And if not, what else is happening to fill the void?

I referred just now to the Roundtable’s first event, on WikiLeaks. Most of you would have noticed that Wikileaks is back in the news in a big way with the Global Intelligence files: 5 million emails from the geopolitical analysis and private intelligence agency Stratfor that they have just this week started to release.

Which is made even more fascinating if you know the history of these emails from back in late 2011 – a chain of events back at Christmas time that had some of us glued to our Twitter accounts, much to the annoyance of family and friends. I know that it was around the time that the idea for this event first came into my mind, and I started to think about the different ways that different people – activists, journalists and citizens – obtain and share information.

Just further on the Stratfor release, I should also acknowledge that Dr Dorling has the lead story in today’s Sydney Morning Herald, on what the Stratfor emails say about what the United States Government is doing in terms of a secret prosecution of Julian Assange. Something that was raised in the Australian Parliament today by Greens Senator Scott Ludlam, unfortunately with little impact on his fellow Parliamentarians.

So the Stratfor release, embodying as it does in some ways what you might term the ‘disorderly’ side of information release, provides a perfect counterpoint to another story about access to information, from the ‘orderly’ domain that I thought I would highlight. This was from last month, when Defence Minister Stephen Smith suppressed the report of an army inquiry into a disastrous ADF commando raid that killed five Afghan children three years ago.

The five children were killed when army commandos raided a farm compound in Oruzgan province in the mistaken belief they would find a Taliban leader there. Two of the soldiers were charged with manslaughter, in a case that triggered widespread controversy.

When The Sunday Age sought a redacted version of the inquiry’s report, with sensitive material censored, Mr Smith said in a written statement: ”Given the operational sensitivity of the inquiry officer’s report, it is not my intention to release a redacted version of the inquiry officer’s report.”

In its investigation The Age established that other material suppressed by court order, official secrecy or FOI exemptions includes almost 30 minutes of video footage recorded by a US drone aircraft during the raid.

It is hard to know how operational details form a three year old raid can adequately justify the suppression of this information. Particularly given that all legal proceedings coming out of the event have now concluded.

The Minister’s decision to suppress this information seems  very much at odds with promises of greater openness and transparency in his department, not to mention the fact that there was a commitment by a former Chief of Joint Operations,  at the start of the inquiry, to release its findings.

These are the kinds of cases where you can very easily see activists looking at a system that seems to be favouring secrecy and protection of people in power. A system that is denying the citizenry its right to see how a terrible tragedy caused by our Defence Force has been rectified and learned from. A system that indeed seems to be actively blocking true justice for victims.

In my experience so many justifications for not providing information under FOI and other legal frameworks are misused. For many years in NSW for example we had a set of ‘sensitivity labels’ that agencies were supposed to apply to information which included ‘commercial in confidence’, used loosely and too often to keep government’s dealings with the private sector secret. The very sorts of matters that the taxpayer, in my view, has a right to fully understand. I was entertained by Humphrey McQueen’s explanation at a Forum I attended a few weeks ago that ‘Commercial in confidence’ actually stands for ‘Corruption in the closet’ (laughter).

And I would argue that the confusion and problems with access to information laws extends beyond the loose or possibly corrupt misuse of exemptions and justifications. In my professional life I’ve always experienced difficulty in attempting to piece together the myriad regulatory frameworks that apply to access to information  – FOI, archives laws, security levels and sensitivity labeling.. it just doesn’t work as a coherent whole, with glaring anomalies at every turn.

There are certainly some very good new laws and offices implementing those laws and I would put what is happening in New South Wales at present in that category. But I would also argue that we have a long way to go in terms of the harmonisation of the overall legal framework, not to mention addressing the political will for change and the culture within government.

There’s also the gradual creep of sensitive areas of government business, like intelligence gathering, into the private sector – taking it outside of the scope of freedom of information and other laws. Even if they are supposed to be applied, implementation is poor.

I guess as a recordkeeping professional I’m interested in what we can do to better support access to evidence – to those who have a right and indeed a need to use it. And there are ways we can do that – by building cleverer systems, systems with metadata to ensure that records once opened stay open; by working to ensure the long term availability and authenticity of publicly released information through administrative and technological change.

I think we’re in the middle of some pretty seismic shifts in how information can and should flow through governments, business and society to help it operate in a manner that is better and fairer. And those of us working in recordkeeping, I believe, have a great deal that we can contribute to that goal. I hope we can explore some of the ways we can do this tonight.

About Cassie Findlay

Digital recordkeeping, archives and privacy professional, co-founder of the Recordkeeping Roundtable. @CassPF on Twitter.
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