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Durban - A “culture of secrecy” is being harboured by government departments and their officials who deliberately keep information out of the public domain, say freedom of expression and public service accountability experts.
The DA in KwaZulu-Natal has also accused MECs of failing to respond timeously to written parliamentary questions and, in so doing, are contravening standing rules and evading their responsibility.
Radley Keys, an MPP in the provincial legislature, said their records showed that only 35 percent of written questions had received a response.
This was a “flagrant contravention of the standing rules of Parliament” which state that written questions to MECs must be answered within two weeks.
“During January 2013, DA legislature caucus members submitted 26 parliamentary questions to different MECs. To date, we have only received 10 replies. In February, 27 written questions were submitted. So far we have only received nine answers,” Keys said.
Parliamentary questions and replies were a vital oversight tool for members to hold the executive accountable and, if they were not answered, MECs were evading this function.
However, Premier Zweli Mkhize’s spokesman, Ndabezinhle Sibiya, rejected the DA’s claims as “misleading the people of KwaZulu-Natal”.
He said Mkhize and the MECs constantly answered questions – orally and written – but that some answers required thorough research, sometimes going back years.
“The DA is well aware of the processes regarding the gathering of information and research that forms part of responses to parliamentary questions. We have always answered questions,” said Sibiya.
“Importantly, Parliament has been on recess and reopened late in February and sittings have just resumed. Most questions will be answered.”
However, Anton Harber, chairman of the Freedom of Expression Institute, said answering questions in the legislature was a “yardstick for accountability”, and a government that was slack about answering formal questions was showing contempt for the institutions of democracy and for citizens.
“They are giving the finger to the constitution and its commitment to transparency and accountability. This seems to be the case in the KZN legislature, but it is part of a virus of disdain towards the principles of openness which is spreading on many levels.”
Examples of this included new legislation to nail whistleblowers, threats to restrict the media, abuse of the National Key Points Act and reluctance to deal with the media.
Journalists, including those at The Mercury, say they are frustrated daily with government departments and spokesmen either ignoring requests for comment or information, or taking weeks or months in some cases to respond, often resulting in the issue becoming stale.
There also did not seem to be any rules as to when and why a meeting goes “in committee”, thereby excluding the media.
Derek Luyt, a spokesman for the Public Service Accountability Monitor, was aware of these difficulties and said the media needed to fight for the establishment of a tribunal to decide when the government should release information.
While he acknowledged that some government-held information was critical and needed to be kept out of the public domain, these cases were “few and far between”.
“A government’s transparency is shown by how open they are with information they are uncomfortable with.”
Luyt said the government had a culture of secrecy, and was only transparent “about things that do not really matter”. It appeared that the government held information as its own property and believed that it had the right to decide what it made public.