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Campaigning MP investigates open government on St Helena

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Tom Watson, right, is “very interested” in media and government issues on St Helena. Picture: fotopedia/”London Summit”

The British politician who led scrutiny of alleged corrupt journalism in London has turned his attention to St Helena.

Tom Watson was contacted by the St Helena Freedom of Information Campaign because of complaints about the openness of government on the island.

Meetings of the executive council are frequently held behind closed doors, and agendas, reports and documents are not released to the public – as would be required by law in England.

Freedom of Information campaign banner: blue block with a padlock symbol containing a letter iMr Watson was told this shackled public scrutiny of the way millions of pounds of UK taxpayers’ money was being spent on the island.

The Labour MP was also told of concerns about the wording of the new Media Standards Ordinance, which appears to allow St Helena Government to ban publication of a newspaper.

This has been denied by Henry Bellingham, the British minister for overseas territories.

St Helena Online has asked St Helena Government for clarification of the yet-to-be-enacted law, which says that sanctions for misconduct include recommending a broadcasting licence be revoked, or:

“…in the case of any ongoing publication, an order that such publication be discontinued.”

(Update, 22 August 2012: SHG says “ongoing publication” refers to, say, web publication of a defamatory newspaper story. However, critics say the wording is ambiguous and should be changed).

Mr Watson said: “I’m very interested in this issue. I’ll pick it up when Parliament is back in the beginning of September.”

He asked his researcher to investigate “every link and source material”. A dossier has now been sent to Mr Watson’s Westminster office.

It included a transcript of an interview in 2006 with Colin Forbes, who was the island’s public solicitor.

He said St Helena Government had not adopted the English Freedom of Information Act because it was too far-reaching to be workable on a small island – a justification since repeated by SHG.

But he added that Freedom of Information laws made governments accountable: “They are forced to reveal the information they have used to come to their decisions.”

He said: “If the UK’s act is too complicated, then let’s get on and produce a version of our own.”

No such law has been introduced.

The public and media are not given detail about what is to be discussed by councillors, meaning people are denied the democratic freedom to participate in public debate and influence political opinion.

Mr Watson has risen to prominence because of his investigations into the phone-hacking scandal in Britain, in which newspapers used information illegally intercepted from private phone messages of politicians, sportsmen, celebrities and even members of the Royal Family.

As a member of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, he has interrogated media mogul Rupert Murdoch, whose flagship News of The World newspaper was closed because of the scandal.

Several senior members of Mr Murdoch’s London staff have since been charged with criminal offences.

In a speech to the Hansard Society in London, Mr Watson said Freedom of Information rights in England had been vital to his investigations.

UK group backs campaign to end secrecy in The Castle
St Helena Online joins a campaign for transparency
‘We honour the spirit of freedom act’ says The Castle
What UK local authorities must publish

St Helena Freedom of Information – blog
St Helena Freedom of Information – Facebook page

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