Solomon Islands PM keynote address FOI workshop

Mr. Gary Wiseman, Manager, UNDP Pacific Centre and other Representatives from the Centre;
Distinguished Workshop Participants and Resource Persons
Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat Officials
Invited Guests
Ladies and Gentlemen.

Good morning. It is a pleasure to be here this morning to officiate at the opening of this important regional workshop on freedom of information, and on behalf of the Government and people of Solomon Islands I wish to warmly welcome all of you, both the resource persons and participants to Honiara, Solomon Islands.

Your presence here demonstrates the need for our region to better accommodate freedom of information and to realize how its values could contribute to the social and economic development of our countries. This work is also a manifestation of the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat’s commitment to implement the Pacific Plan, in particular those provisions of the Plan relating to freedom of information. May I also thank the Forum Secretariat for seeing it fit to host this regional workshop here in Honiara. I encourage you to maintain this positive gesture – Solomon Islands is prepared to play host to such regional workshops, meetings and conferences.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

There are many reasons why most, if not all, countries in our region including Solomon Islands are free countries. The main and enduring reason is that we are democracies, and a central tenet of democracy is the guarantee of human rights, one of which is freedom of information. My Government is fully cognizant of the direct link between freedom of information and good governance (transparency and accountability). Thus we support media freedom in the country, provided they (the media) report responsibly.

I understand that during the course of this workshop you will discuss what freedom of information entails or means; the value of freedom of information; how we could legislate for this fundamental human right; and the challenges to freedom of information.

Ladies and Gentlemen, if freedom of information entails access to information and rights to information, then the media has a critical role to play in realizing the right of freedom of information. And so, we give the media organizations - who we loosely call the ‘press’ - the authority to convey news and information between us, and we expect them to use good journalistic skills and judgment to do so.

We require them to make good judgments about what is correct, what is fair, what is balanced and what is objective.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the media, like any government, have a duty to give people as much information as possible about events and issues affecting their lives. For example, they need to explain to our people why fuel and food (rice) prices keep on increasing.

Without media analysis, an information vacuum occurs in which rumours, whispers and false stories are spread that could create undue anxiety and instability in our countries.

Ladies and Gentlemen, my Government fully recognize the value of the right to information in promoting responsive democratic governance; supporting participatory social and economic development; moderating conflict; and in professionalizing the media. Hence, our desire to work closely with the media and other stakeholders in ensuring that our people are better informed of what is going on in and around them or what their government is doing.

We further support information disclosure to the extent that it does not undermine public interest and national security. I understand that in your deliberations you will discuss the issue of maximum information disclosure and minimum exemptions, and ask questions as to where do we draw the line. How much information should we disclosure and what should be the minimum exemptions and why. It is also important that you take into account the internal country sensitivities and external threats to national and regional security. These issues, I believe should form the basis of any freedom of information policy and legislation.

Ladies and gentlemen, the tyranny of distance will always remain a challenge for freedom of information in our countries, in particular in countries such as Solomon Islands given its geographical spread. However, latest information technologies such as email and mobile phones could ease the problem. In this connection, my Government has signed a memorandum of understanding with the People First Network (PFNet) which operates 20 rural email stations across the country, to use the network to disseminate government information. The Government Communications Unit, with the assistance of the RAMSI Machinery of Government Programme has started emailing a weekly government e-bulletin to the rural villages serviced by PFNet. The project also provides for feed back comments from villagers to the government. Much more remains to be done and we are determined to ensure that our people are better informed.

Above all, I believe that the key to fulfilling ones right to freedom of information is education. A literate and educated population will not only appreciate the right to freedom of information, but also contributes to the value of the freedom of information.

With these few remarks, I wish you every success in your deliberations. My Government looks forward to receiving the outcomes of this workshop and will work closely with the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat and other stakeholders in considering a possible freedom of information policy and legislation that could give effect to the realization of freedom of information – one of our fundamental human rights.

Thank you.