Accountability and Transparency:

By Proscovia Svärd (April 2007)

Working as an Archivist and Research Administrator on a Program on Post-Conflict Transition, the State and Civil Society has enabled me to better understand the importance of archives to conflict resolution, post-conflict reconstruction and democratic governance. One may ask how I have reached this conclusion. I have a personal experience of growing up in a conflict society under the repressive regimes of Idi Amin and Milton Obote in Uganda. In those days, part of the strategy of those dictatorships was to rule by instilling fear in the people. That kind of environment did not promote access to information. Many years later and working in a government institution in Sweden, it is easy to further appreciate the importance of government records in enhancing accountability, transparency and democratic governance.

I have had a vantage view of the documentation-democracy link through the NAI Program on Post-Conflict. Of note is the work I have been doing on the Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which was established at the end of the decade-long Sierra Leone civil war to establish an impartial historical record of the war, document war crimes, and reconcile perpetrators and the victims within a process of national healing. The TRC findings have however not been satisfactorily disseminated to the people. What I have found out from the Sierra Leonean case is that it is not enough to engage in documentation, without paying equal attention to, and providing resources for dissemination and access to the information by members of the public and the media. The government’s unwillingness to engage in the dissemination process has left the responsibility to non-government organisations. One of the commissioners that I interviewed during a visit to Sierra Leone in 2006, was lamenting the fact that they collected witness statements from the people but have never gone back to report to them on the findings of the Commission.
Another aspect of access to information relates to the rule of law and the constitution. In Sierra Leone for example, the constitution grants the electorate freedom of expression and the press. It is clearly stated in the Constitution that:
"Except with his own consent, no person shall be hindered in the enjoyment of his freedom of expression, and for the purpose of this section the same freedom includes the freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference, freedom from interference with his correspondence, freedom to own, establish and operate any medium for the dissemination of information, ideas and opinions, and academic freedom in institutions of learning”, (The Constitutions of Sierra Leone, 1991).
This right is however contradicted by the Public Order Act of 1965. The Public Order Act of 1965 contravenes the 1991 Constitution. The Criminal Libel Law violates the right for individuals and organisations to hold opinions, impart ideas and information as stipulated in the Constitution. According to the respondents in the interviews that I carried out in September 2006 and March 2007, the Sierra Leonean press is challenging some of the provisions in the 1965 Public Order Act because, “they are anti-democratic and anti-press” since, a person who writes an article, which is viewed by the government as libellous, can be sent to jail. This also applies to the person who reads the article and the publisher of the article. The Public Order Act hinders journalists that are supposed to provide information to the electorate and play a watchdog role regarding the way government manages the country’s affairs, from doing their job. This kind of environment does not enhance or facilitate access to government information. This becomes even more relevant when it is considered that non-accountability and lack of transparency were contributing factors to the outbreak of the destructive civil war in Sierra Leone. Therefore, to address impunity, bad governance, corruption and the violation of the human rights and to foster reconciliation, the government will have to make use of the TRC archives and also improve on the management of government archives. It should also promote access to information, if it is to create and sustain an engaged civil society and a vibrant public sphere.
Against that background, archivists/records managers and information professionals in the West should contribute and engage in discourses concerning lack of access to information in other parts of the world, including post-conflict societies. Truth and Reconciliation Commissions are for example internationally becoming an accepted norm in resolving conflicts and creating platforms for reconciliation but how are the findings being disseminated to the people? What is the role of archivists/records managers or other information professionals during the period when the TRCs are in operation and after? The documentation generated by these temporary organisations is extremely important to the citizens who contribute to it by giving witness statements, and to coming generations that need the knowledge about their country’s history. Such documentation and dissemination is also necessary to enhance sustainable peace building. The Sierra Leone TRC Report contains recommendations that the government should act on. It is important that each and every Sierra Leonean gets to know about TRC mission and what it resulted into but this has not been the case. What is the international community going to do about it to remedy the investment of 4.6 million U.S. dollars that was put in the mission? We archivists that operate in established democracies have to engage in international efforts to create awareness about the role of archives in enhancing accountability and transparency.
The Freedom of information is a tenet of democracy and makes people aware of their rights. When information is not made available to the citizens, accountability and transparency on public resource allocation and utilisation is hindered. This in turn creates tension and public mistrust towards government institutions. Documentation is the key to the storage and organization of information in ways that are easily accessible to the citizens. Government archives contain information that is pertinent to people’s development, since the archives represent issues of larger societal concerns.  Archival science promotes access to public records. There is however a school of thought, that even in established democracies, access, classification and preservation of public records is done in away, that prioritises the state over the general public. In a context where there is abuse of power, government records become politicised weapons.

The management of information in post-conflict situations is important to the establishment of sustainable peace building efforts. Therefore, the people of Sierra Leone need to access the findings of the TRC. In order to enhance the full participation of citizens in democratic governance and national development, government records should be made available to the electorate. Government records also provide journalists and civil society activists with information that is useful for holding public officials accountable for their actions. Journalists are supposed to play a “watchdog” role on the state. Proper record keeping is a prerequisite to effective accountability of public office holders to citizens. Proper records management should include laws regulations, and resources to support improved decision-making, policy, and monitoring and audit enquiries into official actions.

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