Alagi Yorro Jallow

Congress shall make no law…. abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press….

This is the part of the First Amendment and the words are very plain, and would seem to be beyond the power of even lawyers and politicians to twist or distort.

The Constitution’s framers provided the press with broad freedom. This freedom was considered necessary to the establishment of a strong, independent press. An independent press can provide citizens with a variety of information and opinions on matters of public importance.

Information is the oxygen of good democratic government. If people do not know what is happening in their society, if the actions of those who rule them are hidden, they cannot take a meaningful part in the affairs of that society. Information is not just a necessity for people; it is an essential part of good government.

Bad government needs secrecy to survive. It allows inefficiency, wastefulness and corruption to thrive. The Freedom of Information Act in Virginia does not mandate closed sessions. The mere fact that it says a governmental body may go into closed session is not a good reason to close the public out of the process.

Governments often prefer to conduct their business in secret. Governments would rather conduct their business away from the eyes of the public. And governments can always find reasons for maintaining secrecy.

Too often governments treat official information as their property, rather than something, which they hold and maintain on behalf of the people.

Public bodies have an obligation to disclose information and every member of the public has a corresponding right to receive information. The exercise of this right should not require individuals to demonstrate a specific interest in the information.

Where a public authority seeks to deny access to information, it should bear the onus of justifying the refusal at each stage of the proceedings. The public authority must show that the information, which it wishes to withhold, comes within the scope of the limited exceptions.

The government may not prevent the publication of a newspaper, even when there is reason to believe that it is about to reveal information that will endanger our national security. Also, the government cannot pass a law that requires newspapers to publish information against their will or impose criminal penalties, or civil damages, on the publication of truthful information about a matter of public concern. It can’t compel journalists to reveal, in most circumstances, the identities of their sources nor can it prohibit the press from attending judicial proceedings and thereafter informing the public about them.

No one disputes that we must safeguard our national security. But we must never allow the public’s right to know, enshrined in the Freedom of Information Act, to be suppressed for the sake of official convenience.

By Alagi Yorro Jallow

The author is founder and former managing editor of The Independent, the Gambia’s only private newspaper before it was banned by the government in 2005. He was a Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy, a 2007 Nieman fellow and is the author of Delayed Democracy: How Press Freedom Collapsed in Gambia published in 2013.