The price tag of truth

Image by neweurasia's Schwartz (CC-usage).
Image by neweurasia's Schwartz (CC-usage).

Editor’s note: The Tajik government has recently instituted fees for information requests from journalists and the general public.  In this editorial, neweurasia’s Botur examines how putting a price tag on information will only serve to hurt freedom:  “Information is the lifeblood of democracy”.

In today’s world when just about every country is striving to improve its transparency, accountability and public access to information (or at least pretend to), the Tajik government once again decides to swim against the stream.

Last week the government issued a decree that envisions charging fees for reimbursement of costs incurred by providing information to news organizations and the public.  The fee has been set at 10 cents per page or $10 per 100 pages.  Consider that the average salary in Tajikistan is $70 per month, not to mention that there are barely two dozen functioning newspapers and news agencies, all of whom are strapped for cash.

The Roghun power plant construction site.  Image from the Flickr profile of ASIA-Plus.  Click on it to see more.
The Roghun power plant construction site. Image from the Flickr profile of ASIA-Plus. Click on it to see more.

The public’s right to know

In developed countries there do exist fees for particular government services and processing.  However, there are no restrictions to public access of the kind of information that should be readily and regularly available to anyone — like, for example, the spreadsheet of public shares in the Roghun power plant that is currently under construction.  According to the BBC/COMTEX:

While an estimated 3 billion US dollars would be needed to complete the project as originally envisioned, with all six generating units, Tajik leaders are adamant that at least two units can be completed over the next five years using domestic funds.

Earlier this month, President Emomali Rahmon said he was confident that the Tajik people “will do everything they can to help complete” the Roghun project.

Tajik lawmakers have expanded the effort by calling on people to buy shares in Roghun that would be made available for trading on the country’s stock market in 2010.

According to Tajik media reports, public-sector workers in some areas have already begun contributing money to the Roghun project, while others, including the Islamic Renaissance Party, have announced their intention to purchase Roghun shares.  (ENG)

An un-Freedom of Information Act

In the United States there is even a little something called the “Freedom of Information Act” (FOI) that enshrines this right, especially for journalists.  The new law in Tajikistan seems to be the precise opposite of FOI.  I believe it has ben designed to create a “safety zone” for the Tajik government from its own people by making information prohibitively expensive for journalists.   This will keep the population under-informed and under-educated.

The decree shamelessly defies the core principle of democracy — it is elected by the people, whom it serves.   Adding insult to injury is the fact that the fees are effectively a form of double-taxation.  This is absolutely unacceptable and harmful for a country that has chosen democratic path to development and which, on the contrary, seriously needs to improve transparency, public access to information, and media coverage of its population to achieve its goals.

Information is the lifeblood of democracy

…which is why the Tajik government should immediately repeal this decree.  In fact, they should also order the various ministries to hold regular press briefings, maintain active and responsive public relations departments, and vigorously collect and compile all data regarding their activities.   Instead, we see a government essentially saying to its people, “Don’t ask questions, just bring the money”.

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  1. Global Voices Online » Tajikistan: The price tag of truth
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