Secrecy or democracy?

For democracy to be a meaningful concept the people need to know what their governments are up to. If this is not the case, the process of electing politicians will be pointless and holding those elected accountable will be impossible.

Power is carried out in more and more murky ways, becoming increasingly opaque. (Ironically, this happens at the same time as our governments roll out new systems of mass surveillance of the people.)

There are the things we know. Most laws are made this way. This makes it possible to participate in an open process, to influence and to have a constructive public debate.

Then we have what we know that we do not know. But when we know what it is we don’t know – at least we can relate to it, try to find out what’s going on and demand openness.

And then there are the things that we do not know that we do not know. Things completely going on in the dark. Things that the people is not supposed to be aware of at all. The dirty little secrets of the few and powerful.

Naturally, there are some things that ought to be kept secret. At least for some time. This could concern certain ongoing diplomatic discussions, ongoing military activities and data concerning private citizens. But most things should get out in the open, as soon as possible.

Consider the US Embassy Cables, made public by Wikileaks and Chelsea Manning.

The US government–elected by the people–has one official policy and another, secret one on important issues.

This nullifies the very purpose of democratic elections. What is the point in voting, if politicians have a secret agenda that voters are not informed about? How should you know who to vote for? And how could you ever be able to evaluate and keep an elected government accountable?

And the Iraq and Afghanistan war diaries: If war is conducted in name of our countries, our values and for our tax money–why should the people not be allowed to know what’s really going on? And how can we even assume that our western military forces are doing the right thing, if relevant information is blacked out? “Trust us” is not a satisfactory answer.

Then we have the Snowden files: Government keeping secret from the people what it is doing to the people. This is a democratic faux pas, if there ever was one.

Or take negotiations on international trade agreements (ACTA, TTIP etc.) that are held behind closed doors.

When government functionaries have come to an agreement, nothing can be changed. What is stated in these agreements often have the same effects as law. And elected politicians in our parliaments can only adopt or reject these agreements in one piece. Nothing can be changed. This creates a fait accompli that short circuits the open, democratic process.

This is about democracy. For real. Governments are trying to suffocate it–and whistleblowers are trying to reanimate it.

And, trust me, there are lots of shady government policies and actions that we don’t even know that we don’t know about. At least not yet.


2 Responses to Secrecy or democracy?

  1. Johan Tjäder August 9, 2014 at 8:26 am #

    The Snowden files were so much more damaging, because the revelations in the end shows that not even the democratically elected leaders knew what was going on. Or didn’t want to. That’s really scary.

  2. Kari August 10, 2014 at 6:20 pm #

    The principle is, we should know all what the government does (transparency), and the government should know nothing about us (privacy). Exceptions, as you mentioned, exist. But in what is called the western democracies now the opposite of the principle characterizes our life: we know nothing about the government (secrecy), and the government knows our every move (mass-surveillence). Exceptions, exist here too: the government informs us about all that wins votes.

Leave a Reply