The right to vote and the right to know

As we approach September 17, things are certain to get stormy and campaigns of the various parties will swing into high gear.

By ALONA VINOGRAD
June 19, 2019 22:21
3 minute read.
Round table discussion at the Israel Democracy Institute

Round table discussion at the Israel Democracy Institute.. (photo credit: JONKLINGER/ WIKIMIEDA COMMONS)

 
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Rumor has it that elections are under way. The current sense of lethargy and sleepiness is misleading since, as we approach September 17, things are certain to get stormy and campaigns of the various parties will swing into high gear.

There is no better time for thinking about the public’s right to information than now, ahead of the elections, for a very simple reason: In order to exercise our fundamental right to vote, we need knowledge – we need to know. We need to know what our elected representatives have done with our money, what they have accomplished in their jobs (paid for by us), what causes they have advanced, and to what extent they have fulfilled their promises. Without the answers to all these questions, we will once again be slaves to the well-oiled machines of political propaganda, disinformation and fake news.

Underlying the premise that the public’s right to information is critical for exercising the right to vote is the idea that knowledge is power, and that when knowledge or information about what’s happening in the political sphere is only in the hands of elected officials and their cronies, this grants them significant power – too much power – which at the end of the day, is used against the public itself.

An outstanding example of this can be found in those cases in which elected officials, during election campaigns, boast of their accomplishments and of their commitment to working on behalf of the public. Needless to say, these are exactly the kind of candidates we would like to vote for. But how can we tell if they are speaking the truth, if we can’t see their calendars and can’t know how many days they were in the Knesset – or even in the country? How can we know if the funds entrusted to them were spent properly, or expended on private interests (otherwise known as corruption)? Only when the public has access to unfiltered information reflecting the true activities of elected officials seeking reelection, can it exercise its right to elect its representatives in an informed and responsible manner.

For interested members of the public, unmediated access to information about elected officials is critical, in order to be able to form a fully independent political position. Even if this is a somewhat utopian vision – for in our populist times, everything is biased – doing the very best we can to fully exercise the public’s right to information can counterbalance political and private interests and clarify the real picture. And perhaps most importantly, it can strengthen the public’s position vis-à-vis the political system, in demanding full accountability of politicians.

Over the last decade, the State of Israel has come a long way in terms of transparency, a fact acknowledged even by its critics. We cannot ignore the fact that information databases have been opened up; the Justice Ministry has set up a unit responsible for freedom of information; there is a steady rise in the number of freedom-of-information requests submitted to various government bodies; and the general feeling is that the state is striving to show off its transparency credentials.

This is very welcome progress, but it is not enough, and we are still a long way from where we ought to be. Until our elected representatives willingly – and at their own initiative – share substantial information about their political activities with the public, the public must demand reliable information and transparency from those aspiring to lead the country.

There is no better time than election season to begin making these demands.

The writer is the director of the Center for Democratic Values and Institutions, Israel Democracy Institute.

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