So you want to lead the country? Show us your calendars
Rumor has it that we are in the midst of an election season. The general hush and drowsiness is misleading; as we get closer and closer to September 17 the winds will pick up and the campaigns will operate with full force. There is no better time than now, to give some thought to the public’s right to information. To be able to exercise our fundamental right to vote, we need to know: we need to know what our elected representatives do with our money during their hours on the job (which we pay for); what ideas and programs they promoted, and the extent to which there is a match between their promises and what they actually did. Without the answers to all these questions, we are doomed to be the captives of well-oiled mechanisms of fake news, propaganda, and disinformation.
Underlying the assumption that the public’s right to information is crucial for exercising the right to vote is the realization that knowledge is power. And when knowledge or information about what is taking place in the political sphere is exclusively in the hands of elected officials and their cronies, it endows them with great, even excessive power that is ultimately turned against the public.
A salient example of this is the fact that when elections are in the offing, elected officials flaunt their achievements and their commitment to work on behalf of the public. There is no doubt that these are the type of candidates we would like to vote for; but how can we know whether they are telling the truth if we can’t see their appointment books and know how many days they were present in the Knesset plenum, or even in the country; whether the public funds for which they are responsible were expended on the basis of objective criteria or to serve their personal needs? Only when the public has access to information that reflects the true activity of candidates seeking reelection, can it exercise its right to cast its ballots in an intelligent and responsible fashion.
Direct access to information about elected officials is crucial for citizens’ ability to form an independent political stance. Even if this is a utopian dream (since in the current wave of populism, everything is biased), optimal use of the public’s right to information can help balance competing interests and clarify the picture. Most important, it can enhance the public’s power vis-à-vis the political system, and its right to demand full accountability.
When it comes to transparency, the country has come a long way in the past decade. Even the critics admit as much. We cannot ignore the fact that databases have been opened up, that the Justice Ministry now has a unit responsible for ensuring freedom of information, and that there has been a continual increase in the number of freedom-of-information requests submitted to various agencies and authorities. The prevailing sense is that transparency is something to be proud of. This progress is all well and good, but it’s not enough; we are still very far from where we should aspire to be. Until our elected representatives, of their own initiative, share substantive information about their political activities with the public, we must insist on reliable information and transparent conduct by those who want to lead the country. Election season is an excellent time to start demanding this.
Alona Vinograd is the director of the Center for Democratic Values and Institutions at the Israel Democracy Institute.