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Freedom of Information: Who Has a Right to What?

A Cultural Issue

Freedom of information has been a touchy issue in the recent past. Even more so freedom of the press. Americans and others from Western societies put a high value on the right of access to public information and the right of the press to transmit this information to others in an open forum. Many Micronesians tend to take a more guarded view of the matter, looking more to how the information is likely to be used and who may be affected by it. Everywhere in Micronesia it is tacitly understood that there are some things that must remain unexpressed even if they are known by everyone. From the outset of the discussion, we were aware of the cultural clash that the topic can set off.

This basic tension was recognized twenty years ago at the Constitutional Convention that framed the present FSM Constitution. The question of whether to include freedom of expression in the Bill of Rights sparked off a bitter debate. On the one hand, the delegates acknowledged that freedom of expression was one of the most basic rights and that "without this freedom there could be no truly free society." On the other hand, they were aware of the limits imposed on this right in traditional island societies. Customary restraint in expressing negative judgments and the importance of respect seem to be at odds with freedom of expression, at least as it is understood in the West. In the end, freedom of expression was included in the Bill of Rights, but a compromise was struck. An article was included in the Constitution to protect Micronesian culture and traditional practice. In the event of conflict between freedom of expression and custom, custom would prevail.

Clearly, the debate continues today. Even in the panel presentations there were two contrasting voices. One highlighted the changes in Micronesian life and the differences between the needs of a traditional society and our needs in FSM today. A democratic society demands free access to information so that the public can be properly informed on public issues. People clearly want information today, as the readers of JTPA News say again and again. Public records as well as the actions of public officials should be brought to the attention of all so that they can make informed political choices. If this demands an attitudinal change in Micronesians, so be it. The second voice maintained that Micronesia will never be the United States and that American-style free exchange is out of the question here. Culture will ultimately take precedence over everything, as is only fitting and proper. Moreover, public issues can be resolved without open confrontation.

The Press as Watchdog

How can we hope to keep public officials and other high ranking persons honest except through the press? (With so many representatives of the press on the panel, it was probably inevitable that we should choose freedom of the press as our focal point for the evening.) It is the press, one person remarked, that holds public officials accountable in the US and keeps them relatively honest out of the fear that they will be caught in their wrongdoing. On an island like Pohnpei in traditional times, however, there were other checks on bad behavior. In the first place, it was hard to be dishonest since produce like yams and pigs could not be easily concealed in a small community. Then, too, public opinion constituted a very effective means of social control. A person could not steal without incurring the disapproval of his neighbors and risking their withdrawal of support for him and his family.

Yet, the old cultural system never had to worry about the theft or misuse of money, something that is so much easier than stealing a canoe or a valuable tool. Traditional practices are fine for conflict resolution and other such affairs, but the temptation to misuse money demands other, newer safeguards. Some participants believed that vigorous press reporting has made public officials think long and hard before they take advantage of their position to bully people or use public funds on themselves. Another participant thought that JTPA News' listing of overdue travel vouchers has given Finance Department a needed push to solve the problem of processing travel papers and collecting what is owed the government. The press may not always be gentle in its methods, but it can be highly effective.

Who gave the press license to act as the watchdog over the society? one person asked. It was certainly not the traditional leaders nor the people, he objected. Perhaps not, others argued, but in our modern day new institutions are needed to do what the old could suffice to handle in simpler times. A new age brings new problems that demands new solutions, however much our respect for tradition. If we want the democracy that is so integral to life in the modern world, we must also adopt the means that are necessary to protect it. This will demand the readiness to make real changes. The change of mentality that people need to accommodate an active press should not be underestimated, some remarked. One man said that he was on Guam when the freedom of information act was put into effect there. Some of the early newspaper articles provoked outcries and resulted in lawsuits, but in time the people of Guam got used to the press' hard hitting approach. There has never been a history of a well-established press in FSM, someone pointed out; it's a very recent creation. We can expect people to get used to it in time, just as they did on Guam and in other places.

Local people will have to decide, of course, how far they want to allow the press to go. They have it within their power to determine whether the "watchdog" will be a pit bull or a collie, as one person put it. But they will also have to accept the consequences of their decision. If Western donors expect a strict and open accounting of the funds they give, as one person reminded us, Micronesia will have to comply or risk losing these funds altogether.

The Cultural Factor

Although a free press may intend to pursue issues and check abuses rather than target individuals, it rarely is able to do so without naming persons. This presents a serious problem in a small society in which maintenance of good personal relations is an important value. What is unflattering about a person, even if generally known, should not as a rule be publicly verbalized. This cultural rule of thumb clearly inhibits the disclosure of a public official's misdeeds in the press. As a consequence, a press sensitive to Micronesian culture cannot afford to be as open and direct as its Western counterpart.

One participant, in an eloquent and impassioned comment, argued that the critical element in culturally sensitive press coverage is respect. The press must respect all persons, even those public officials who seemingly abuse their authority and the resources entrusted to them. Someone objected that when events show a person to be dishonest, he forfeits any right to respect and merits the embarrassment that results from full disclosure of his wrongdoing. This is precisely the difference between Micronesian and American culture, the first speaker replied. No one forfeits respect in the island cultures, no matter how great and numerous his misdeeds. Mutual respect is the bonding agent in these societies. It is what keeps people from one another's throats and what prevents society from falling into barbarism. On the same theme, another participant likened the press to a knife, which in the hands of a surgeon can heal, but in the hands of another person might kill.

The discussion then took a digressive turn. Is a paper justified in withholding the names of those who write in on controversial topics? Some felt that if public officials are named, so should those who make accusations about them in letters to the editor. On the other hand, this might be expecting too much. Given the power inequality between the letter writer and the public officials who might be implicated by his charges, the writer would be committing social suicide in making a public statement. One participant reminded us that there are certain situations in which names must be withheld, as in medical cases in which privileged information is being used. Obviously, the paper must be sure that the contents of the letter are responsible, informed, and free from slander. Failure to do so will lead to a breakdown of the respect that is so valued in island society. On a more pragmatic level, it also opens the paper to nasty lawsuits, as happened to the newspaper on a nearby island just a few years ago when it published a letter that proved to be unfounded and libelous.

Closing the Information Gap

One person was bold enough to suggest that the main purpose of the press was not to serve as a watchdog, but to purvey information that was badly needed by the local community. If the people are ever to learn what is going on in the fishing industry, for instance, they will have to get it from the press. Not everyone agreed with this statement. One person maintained that information is shared in the community and that people know everything they need to know.

Is the "coconut telegraph" adequate for getting information around the island and from one island to another? Some were not convinced that it was, at least in an accurate form. Word of mouth reports are notoriously unreliable, in the judgment of many participants. One person told of a rumor circulating on Pohnpei that the hospital was covering up a huge AIDS epidemic. The story was passed on when one of the hospital personnel misinterpreted some data and began spreading the story to others. The misleading rumor was finally halted when a local newspaper published the facts of the case. Many people certainly express a craving for more information, even if they rely on the spoken word rather than the written word for most of the news they pick up.

The press, of course, cannot disseminate information unless it first is able to gather it from its normal sources. Often in the past, papers have complained of not being able to obtain public information they need for a story. Office doors are closed to some journalists and phone calls go unanswered. One participant explained the reluctance of clerks to give information to journalists as a way of protecting their bosses against what they fear would be the embarrassing use of this information in the paper. Their refusal to hand over information is due to personal loyalty, another traditional value in island society. Yet, a participant who has been practicing journalism on this island for years said that he has never had a serious problem getting the information he needed. If he doesn't get it on the first day, he will eventually get it on the fifth day.

Do we need newspapers today? Yes, one person said, but they should be balanced and more positive than they are at present. With the FSM looking forward to status negotiations with the US in a few more years, newspapers should be conscious of their power to convey an image of this new country, positive or negative.

One person warned that the press might do well to redefine its role in Micronesia. Rather than functioning as a watchdog, it should see itself as one vehicle among others for the education of the local population. More important still, the press should never try to isolate itself from the cultural environment in which it operates. The press may be an indispensable form of communication in a modern nation, but it must still pay its cultural dues.

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