Skip to content

Something to hide? Department of Environment takes the path of least disclosure

This is an excerpt from an article written by Don Pinnock and published by Daily Maverick on 15 February, 2021.

If you want information from the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries about the policies and activities it undertakes, it will stretch your patience and sanity to a snapping point. But what are they trying to hide?

Secrecy, according to the 19th-century English philosopher Jeremy Bentham, is an instrument of conspiracy and ought never to be the system of regular government. Yet bureaucracy always seeks the path of least disclosure.

That path is well tramped by the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries (Deff). Transparent they are not.

Because it’s their legal duty to provide information requested of them, they’ve become masters of diversion and diffusion. It’s not that they’re uncommunicative, but that they lead you on a merry dance just to get the facts that you’d expect to be freely available to the public in a functioning democracy.

Do DEFF officials have something to hide, are they terrified their inefficiency will be exposed, or is it simply because it’s a damn nuisance to answer questions? That this is happening under Minister Barbara Creecy’s watch is deeply worrying, given the initial elation by the wildlife community at her appointment to the environment portfolio. Is she aware of the problem or part of it?

Access to information is the lifeblood of any democracy and in this our law is unambiguous. Section 32(1)(a) of the Constitution provides that everyone has the right of access to any information held by the state, including provincial governments. This was confirmed in the Public Access to Information Act (PAIA) of 2000, which even requires that an officer assist you to frame good questions.

Government departments are required to reply within 30 days. If they’re having trouble finding it, they are permitted another 30 days. And that’s all.

So how are we doing? When I asked environmental NGOs and journalists if they were having problems accessing information, it turned out they were – in spadefuls.

Read More: