Bring out state from veil of secrecy: disclose!

  • - Culture of not disclosing information handed down over the years
  • - Lack of disclosure fuels suspicions
  • - Issue lies in lack of sincerity, not lack of laws

On the issue of disclosure of financial statements by Members of Parliament, advocacy group, Transparency Maldives’ Advocacy and Communications Manager Aiman Rasheed had this to say.

“From early on, the state was run behind the scenes, in secrecy, with no accountability or disclosure. In a dark room,” he said. Even in the flurry of democracy, there have been issues side swept in the melee that ensued over the years.

How are tax revenues used? How much is spent on running the country in a month? Which companies had bid for state backed or sponsored projects? What is the criteria for those projects? What is the impact of bills submitted to the Parliament? The impact to the state budget? What is the impact of the judicial rulings?

Citizens does not have a response to these questions. The culture of secrecy has been passed down from generation to generation, starting from the reign of kings to former Presidents Maumoon, Nasheed and to the current leadership.

Road to corruption

Aiman said that in a fully functioning democracy, there will be scant to hide from the public. Logic gives credence to his statement. Usually, a person hides something when there is something untoward about the circumstances. Every single Ministry or state agency is hesitant to release any form of information to the public.

Similarly, Parliament members, irrespective of political allegiance, is hesitant to release information, especially on their personal assets. The members who disclosed their asset statements, did so only after public uproar and the resultant international scrutiny.

Small example: Avas had contacted National Disaster Management Center (NDMC) to enquire on the status of the funds collected during the Male’ water crisis. The Deputy Minister in charge of the Center said “the Center does not have mandate to disclose details”. The journalist from Avas was on the receiving end of many questions, such as how he got the number of the Minister. But is this something that needed to be kept under wraps?

The state had stopped publishing state weekly expenditure details during the reign of President Dr. Mohamed Waheed in 2013. The citizen has no right to access the information on how his taxes are spent. It is well within his rights to know how his taxes are spent, if the state is to ensure trust in the tax system.

Former Attorney General Niyaz Ibrahim had said state refusal to publicize the expenditures was a direct route to corruption. Why state expenditures have to be hidden defies logic. Surely the publication of such details will limit the undue scrutiny.

“Citizens knowing how their taxes are spent is a bigger story than political issues. That shows if their taxes are being spent in the best pattern. Or in the opposite. If it’s the latter, then the public has opportunity for constructive criticism to address it. In Maldives, the opportunity is lost,” Niyaz Ibrahim said.

Lack of transparency fuels the corruption the nation currently sees. The Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) cannot conduct their investigations transparently. Same applies to Maldives Police Service, who are hesitant to reveal even the most basic details of their investigations. Details, if any, are released only when the public rallies reach to the extent the agencies cannot ignore them.

“What we are advocating for is more transparency. If there is transparency, it becomes difficult to hide any wrong doings. By itself, the simple act of transparency becomes a deterrent for corruption. If not, then corruption will keep on thriving,” Aiman said.

No transparency in any action

The decisions to hand over the construction of a 25 storey building for IGMH to a Singapore and construction of new premises for Finance Ministry, came out of the blue. The projects are valued at MVR 4 billion. The project, utilizing billion in tax payer funds and impacting the whole country, was made public only after the agreement was signed.
To this date details of the project, benefits to the public, finance sources or even a simple analysis had not been made public. The evaluation process in selecting two foreign companies was not publicized.

Possibly the two projects will revolutionize the health sector, improve it for the better. Perhaps it will bring a health change to the budget. If that’s the case, then open the details for public to see and understand. The delay and the lack of publication pushes the view that the state had something to hide, the state sponsors and endorses corruption.
Publication of details is vital to engage the public in future projects and ensure their support for the state run projects, both current and planned. This could impact the overall benefits gained. Whether corruptive elements were in the project is another discussion, in the minds of the public, trust and public perception is a fickle aspect.

“State expenses have to be made transparent. Otherwise, public will not have faith in the state governance system,” ex-Finance Minister Ahmed Inaz said.

Recent history gives credence to this fact. During the tenure of former President Mohamed Nasheed, citizens, political figures and action groups rallied against the Government over the suspicion of corruption in handing over the airport to India’s GMR group for development. The process was rushed, the citizens rushed faster to condemn the lack of transparency in the process. Nasheed was labelled corrupt for this very reason. Nasheed at that time had failed to implement transparency in his privatization drive as well. Thief was attached to his name because of this very reason.

Is it a legal issue?

Under US and UK law, statements of wealth and expenditure have to be filed by heads of state, their families and political families. Expenditure reports for development projects, tax expenditure and civil service have to be made public. These parties are mandated by law to disclose their statements to the Parliament or Senate every quarter. Such laws and regulations are non-existent in the Maldives.
Though, it cannot be said that this is due to lack of laws. Right to Information is guaranteed in the Constitution. An Information Commissioner’s Office is in operation.

Transparency Maldives believes the problem is rooted deeper. The decision not to publicize information has been handed down from generations, from the heads of state to the lowest ranks of the administration. Aiman said the state was run in secrecy not for the lack of laws; rather it is an excuse. This is directly linked to the sincerity of those controlling the state.

“Heads of all institutions have to take the lead in disclosing information. Disclosing financial statements, halting illegal profiteering has to stop. This is not happening. Why do citizens do not have access to information from the very system that is being supported and bolstered by them?” he said.

The veil of secrecy that hangs over the state, public institutions, law and judiciary has to be thrown off. Right to information is a basic right enshrined in the constitution; one of the few ways the citizens can gain and maintain trust in the state and state leaders.