Changing a culture of secrecy: freedom of information and our latest project in Armenia

A conversation with EJC media development trainer Lisa Essex

Lisa Essex has played a key role in many of EJC’s media development projects over the last decade. Photos by Josh LaPorte and E-jicom

From the very beginning, the European Journalism Centre (EJC) has been firmly committed to supporting independent media, ensuring diversity of voices and access to information in developing media landscapes around the world. Throughout these projects, we have worked with some of the media development sector’s most innovative and frankly, courageous trainers.

One of them is Lisa Anne Essex, an international journalist, editor and trainer with extensive experience in post-conflict and hostile environments. She has been at the heart of some of the EJC’s most challenging media development projects over the last decade as a media and communications expert in places as diverse and demanding as Georgia, Kosovo, Kenya and Tanzania.

Lisa also plays an important role in our latest project in Armenia with the Freedom of Information Centre of Armenia. The project’s goal is to utilise the laws already on the books that guarantee freedom of access to information, meant for both journalists and citizens.

When we were starting this new 18-month project, I sat down with Lisa to ask her why access to information is so vital to good journalism and good governance and to reflect back on her years working with the EJC.

Lisa, through training journalists, you’ve supported freedom of expression across the globe. What do we mean when we talk about free access to information in developing countries and countries in transition?

Freedom of information is right at the heart of democracy: it’s crucial for human rights because it demands individuals to participate in effective government. It forces a participatory type of democracy.

Building alliances: bringing activists and journalists together in Tanzania. Photo by Marjan Tillmans

Freedom of information is also an extension of freedom of speech, which is covered under the international law. And this covers any medium, not just media. It’s the content, not the means of expression.

In developing countries, freedom of information leads to empowerment and equality for all social groups, and that includes marginalised populations. It’s so important in the developing world because it contributes to economic growth, and a transparent investment climate, as well as social development. If you are going to commit money to a country, you need transparency and accountability, which is crucial for investment in the economy.

So, freedom of information can protect and be a shield against corruption and mismanagement: it acts as a disinfectant and shines the light in the darkness.

And what are the factors hindering it?

A lack of record keeping, incomplete disclosure. It is expensive for governments and businesses to gather the information, process and then share with citizens and journalists. And on top of that, there is just the plain refusal to implement the law due to the things that they know will be unveiled by it.

What concerns me the most is the so-called chilling effect where the laws are undermined because the presence of the law discourages public bodies from keeping records and even writing things down. It’s much easier therefore to say ‘truthfully’ that you cannot fulfil an FOI (Freedom of Information) request because you have no records, than to risk getting caught out or challenged in court for not releasing relevant papers.

On a positive note, look how far we’ve come. In 1990, there were only 13 countries with FOI laws, now there are over 100 with laws on the books. The challenge now is implementation, which is still a significant quest, especially in countries with a history of secrecy. Most ex- Soviet republics fall dramatically into this category, including Armenia, where our latest project is located.

Let’s get a little regionally specific here. What does the situation look like in the former Soviet-space, countries such as Armenia, Georgia and Ukraine?

As I said, the first step was passing the FOI laws, which has been done through much of the former Soviet space. But you don’t change an embedded culture of secrecy just by changing the law.

That requires a tsunami of cultural change. Fortunately, everywhere I’ve worked for the EJC in the Newly Independent States (NIS), especially Georgia, Ukraine and now Armenia, I meet smart, committed young people, who are dedicated to using all the tools we at EJC can offer them to enact change in their societies.

And what factors are playing in Armenia that make its situation unique?

Due to the dynamic mentioned above, the situation is frustrating to journalists, civil society organisations (CSOs) and citizens alike. But since the Armenian Velvet revolution of April 2018, the new government is making much stronger assurances on implementation of FOI laws.

In fact, the Ministry of Justice was one of the recipients of a local FOI centre “Golden Key Awards”. www.e-rquest.am, the official portal for all government agencies to receive FOI requests all in one place, was announced The Best Official Web Site in terms of access to information.

How do EJC’s projects address these issues, especially in Armenia?

The EJC provides an opportunity for participants across the globe to acquire and practice new skills, share ideas and create networks which will allow their target groups to feel confident and empowered to change their own societies.

It’s not up to the EJC what our stakeholders should do. We are there to provide a framework to think differently, act and advocate differently and push their societies forward at all levels.

Shushan Doydoyan, Founder and President of the Freedom of Information Center Armenia (FOICA) with Lisa Essex and Josh LaPorte at the project’s launch in Yerevan in September. Photo by FOICA/Shabat.am

For example, in Armenia, we targeted people who should be using the FOI laws but so far have not felt that doing so would produce results. It’s true that it is a frustrating process, but the more they push FOI requests, the more there is training and advocacy for journalists and citizens to request information, the more officials are reminded of their obligations under the law.

The world is watching Armenia right now. The government has said it will prioritise FOI implementation, but the world won’t wait forever. Officials themselves need training on how to respond to FOI requests and we are seeing CSO representatives step into that gap, which the project overall also supports.

The project in Armenia will be implemented over the next 18 months. What are the main challenges you anticipate?

The task is huge but pretty straightforward. The laws are there, and they are good laws. But remember FOI laws only give you the right to request information. They do not give you the right to receive it.

One thing we’ve seen in Armenia is that when refusals are challenged in the courts, the judiciary has tended to decide that incomplete and irrelevant responses fulfil the requirement of the law. One tactic we are seeing across Armenia is to simply avoid responding to FOI requests; in other words, just to keep playing for time and let the clock run out on requests.

Lisa Essex at the project’s launch in Yerevan. Photo by FOICA
Freedom of Information laws by themselves cannot fix the problems of democracy, all they can do is support the efforts of journalists and citizens in their push toward transparent and accountable governments and businesses.

Recent political change has shown us that Armenia still has the capacity to create seismic changes in power, sometimes even overnight. Implementation of FOI takes time, stability and commitment. I am not sure we have all three of these ingredients in Armenia.

Finally, taking into account all of the challenges around freedom of expression in Armenia since its independence in 1991, what are your aspirations for this project?

I hope citizens, journalists and civil society will see our presence as support and commitment to their struggle. I hope to get the message across that the challenges Armenians face have been experienced and been overcome in other environments.

The future is not all rosy but it’s not time to despair. You are not alone and we are here to help. We hope that the new government will work with us and the key stakeholders to implement the laws and see the benefits, and finally that investigative journalists — with full access to information — will lead the way.