It is wrong to suppress right of public to know what’s going on in the government

By: NG’ANG’A MBUGUA

Too often, public and State officers forget that the positions they hold are primarily meant to serve the citizenry, advance nationhood, and ensure that the social contract between elected leaders and the public is respected.

In the heat of pressure arising from close public scrutiny of how they conduct themselves while in office, these officers and their handlers are wont to overstep their mandates.

They forget that they are required to use the Constitution as their guiding light and compass every time the public raises questions or demands action.

Indeed, the Constitution of Kenya clearly stipulates that sovereignty lies with the people, not their leaders or any State office.

Partly because the instinct for self-preservation is often more urgent that the prerogative to obey the Constitution and partly because public officials allow power to cloud their judgement, they often lash out in anger at the messenger, believing him to be the originator of the message.

ORDERED ARREST

That is the hole into which the Cabinet Secretary for the Interior and Coordination of the National Government, Mr Joseph Nkaissery, fell when he ordered the arrest of the Daily Nation’s Parliamentary Editor, Mr John Ngirachu.

It is the same trap that the CEO of Kenyatta National Hospital fell into when he lashed out at our reporter, Ms Eunice Kilonzo, on the same day simply because a month ago she had reported how a patient spent over 18 hours waiting to be allocated a bed in the hospital’s intensive care unit.

Government officers are duty-bound to provide information to the public.

This is one of the tenets on which the social contract is anchored.

Indeed, it is held to be a self-evident truth that giving information is the surest way to address public anxiety, especially when the citizens demand answers about questionable procurement, grand corruption, abuse of office, and poor leadership.

Unfortunately, State officials operate under the misguided notion that the information that comes in their possession by virtue of their offices is meant for their private consumption.

In fact, they are only meant to hold it in trust.

In instances where it would be undesirable to release such information or doing so would undermine the public good, then they are expected to act accordingly, but only in the public interest.

NO PUBLIC INTEREST SERVED

No public interest is served when a CS seeks to conceal information about corruption.

Invariably, corruption is theft of public money.

Even as private citizens, one has a right to demand to know how one’s money is spent if the expenditure is left to a third party.

If a father gives money to his child, he has the right to demand accountability from that child. This is only natural.

The same principle applies in the public sphere.

The public has a right to know if Sh3.8 billion of taxpayers’ money was spent in unclear circumstances.

This is especially critical when such questions are raised by a public watchdog institution mandated by the citizens to scrutinise government spending.

Mr Nkaissery, who gave the order to lock up Mr Ngirachu “until he reveals his sources”, would do his office a greater service by cascading these questions to officers in his ministry who spent the money.

Indeed, he ought to parade them in front of journalists and require them to answer questions about how, why, and when the money was spent but only to the extent that such information does not compromise public safety.

INTEGRITY AND ACCOUNTABILITY

What was at stake was not national security or the tenure of the present administration.

The key question was about integrity and accountability.

The question that Mr Nkaissery was being asked, and which is yet to go away despite his strong-arm tactics is: Was the Sh3.8 billion spent wisely?

This is a legitimate question requiring a legitimate answer in view of increased profligacy in government and the growing mountain of public debt that the Jubilee administration has been piling up in recent months.

Shooting — or in this case locking up — the messenger will neither answer this question nor wish it away.

The Cabinet Secretary must in the final analysis tell the public what actually happened with all that money.

He has little choice in the matter.

SOURCE: DAILY NATION