The secrecy of the institutions and the silence of the lambs

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We have recently seen and heard members of important public institutions pleading their case for absolute secrecy, for keeping important information hidden. Some have even started threatening that disclosures could result in imprisonment. Others plead for their right not to comment or explain.

There comes a time, and we have seen a number of them in the past years, where hiding behind secrecy and silence is no longer a valid option. There comes a time where the public needs to understand. In certain circumstances, the public has a right to be properly informed, to be encouraged to understand the issues at stake and make their own sensible judgement. The public has the right to expect re-assurances that the public institutions are doing their job correctly and efficiently and therefore merit trust and respect.

Confidentiality is always limited and is never absolute. It is not a value or principle in its own right. Confidentiality is certainly not an end in itself. This results clearly from such laws as the MFSA Act, the Professional Secrecy Act and the whistleblowing legislation. Certainly confidentiality was not intended as a ‘rogues charter’, or as a screen to conceal derelictions of duties and possible criminal activity or acts of maladministration by the same institutions.

Trust cannot be assumed but must be gained. Leaving the public in the dark on significant developments implies that the public is being considered as fools and idiots, as sheep who may be ignored and disrespected with impunity. When this happens, the public will rightly start doubting whether the institutions are on their side. Their confidence in public institutions will evaporate and they will suspect that the true object behind the stubborn, obsessive, incomprehensible silence is to keep the public from knowing and understanding what is going on. They may even suspect that secrecy is actually helping the wrong people: the criminals, the lazy, the incompetent and the abusive regulators and agencies.

The law is not there to allow public institutions to hide from public view and to ignore public demands for better understanding of important issues of public concern. Confidentiality is there to allow the public agencies to do their job serenely and efficiently. It is not there to facilitate criminality or conceal public abuse.

Secrecy is not a magic wand which public authorities can wave to hide their inefficiencies, their inertia and their failings, or to render themselves immune from criticism and from the moral, political and possibly also legal consequences. Public agencies are exactly that, publicly accountable institutions with public responsibilities. They are not private clubs or secret societies.

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