Sunday, May 19, 2019

Journalism in the Time of Orwell

By on May 25, 2016

Puerto Rico’s democracy is under threat, not in the form of a federal fiscal-control board this time, but in House Bill (HB) 2944, a measure to establish the Law for Transparency & Access to Documentation & Public Information (See story on www.cb.pr). The bill is a wolf in sheep’s clothing that pretends to regulate the flow of information from the central government that would irreparably harm the freedom of the press in Puerto Rico at a most critical juncture in this island’s history.

Photo by Luis J. Valentín

Photo by Luis J. Valentín

Let’s cut straight to the chase—hidden on the living room table under Article VI (Obligation of Government Control over Public Information & Exceptional Term) is the statement: “The state has the obligation to have control over information and public documentation through original files, copies or digital facsimile.” The state’s intent to control the flow of information runs contrary to the First Amendment and a truly free press. Article VI is the precept underpinning so much of what is truly worrisome in this bill.

A good case in point is Article XII, which requires “all public employees to carry a log of the initiatives they are carrying out, the information that they obtain and the documents that they generate. Each document in the file will have on each page the date when it was created, the government agency, the name of the public servant, which can be substituted for code…. It is mandatory to transfer any annotation, digital or otherwise to the file.”

Can you say: “Big brother is watching you?”

Then, another page from George Orwell, in Article XI: “All public officials will have the obligation to open a file over any new issues they are handling—the decision to open a file does not belong to the public employee, but is a mandate of law.” This law does not protect the free flow of information; on the contrary, it criminalizes the free flow of information.

This newspaper cannot imagine information flowing freely when sources are criminalized for helping to make public things that the government would like to keep secret.

The bill is chock full of dispositions that are intended to muzzle good journalism. Article IX, which establishes seven working days as the timeframe for the government to comply with or deny requests for information prior to a petitioner resorting to an Administrative Advisory Board—we will get to that in a bit—also stipulates that all requests will be made public.

We, the journalists at this newspaper today, have never obtained the truth when the government was aware of investigations we were conducting. If that were the case, it is highly unlikely that we would ever have broken the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority rate hike story (April 21, 2016) and provided the public with clear numbers, which were obtained through multiple sources and an intense discipline of verification.

Had the government required a public filing that could be denied—had our investigation alerted everyone to the areas we were looking into—it is highly unlikely our public would have known the truth as early as it did, prior to the filing of the final rate case.

Imbedded in HB 2944 is the disposition to create an advisory board ruled over by a “solicitor of information” that will be chosen from among various entities—some of which are tied to Open Society, a think tank funded by hedge-fund king George Soros. Suffice it to say that the law explains that the Junta de Control de Información is intended to procure information on the behalf of the people. Of course, and Santa Claus lives in Plaza Las Américas.

We invite the public to read the bill and come to its own conclusions.

It is never a good idea to bring lawmakers in to tamper with freedom of speech—we already have a First Amendment in the Bill of Rights. And, as for information that the government does not want to give us, we will doggedly hunt it down until we make it public. We respectfully submit that the bill be withdrawn at once. This is not the time to be tampering with a free press.

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