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PUBLIC VIA THE MEDIA HAS RIGHT TO INFORMATION

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Many journalists in the Virgin Islands have gotten so inured to being ignored by local officials that they’re stunned when they deal with public officials elsewhere.
We were reminded of this recently when following up on a national drug bust with local connections.
Imagine our surprise and delight when the lead prosecutor on the national case and a national spokesperson for the FBI returned our phone calls within a half-hour — a half-hour! — of our requesting information.
In contrast, the majority of local officials and spokespeople rarely return calls at all. We can call three, four, five times, but often our calls are ignored, if it's on a subject they don't want to talk about, as are those of other journalists.
A few recent examples: Louis M. Willis, director of the Internal Revenue Bureau, has failed to return repeated calls from the Source for information on tax rebates in the territory; Attorney General Iver Stridiron has not returned calls seeking information on a variety of issues, including the shortage of staff in his office; Tourism Commissioner Pam Richards hasn’t responded to repeated calls about the readiness of the Tourism web site.
These are important public issues that deserve full and accurate coverage by the press. But it’s difficult to provide full, accurate coverage if public officials don’t provide basic information or explain their side of a controversy.
Many of these officials, of course, are quick to call radio talk show hosts, perhaps because they can get their self-serving viewpoints across unfiltered by the tough questions that professional journalists are trained to ask. That is a form of selective dissemination of information that the courts have frowned on, including courts in the Virgin Islands. Public officials do not have the luxury of picking and choosing whom they will give information to; they are legally required to offer the same information to all media.
This is not to say that these officials have to spend an unreasonable amount of time dealing with the media. If they don’t wish to shoulder that responsibility, they can and should appoint spokespeople who can represent their views to the public — but those spokespeople must be in the know and be authorized to speak for their bosses.
The impact of stonewalling by local officials is obvious: Stories don’t get reported, or if they do get reported, they aren’t as thorough or accurate as they should be.
Until the people who elect these public servants demand full disclosure and hold elected officials to their campaign promises of "transparency" in government, as was promised over and over during the Turnbull-James campaign, it is unlikely that anything will change…leaving the press and therefore the public in the dark about government activities.
We wonder, does the public care?
We welcome and encourage readers to keep the dialogue going by responding to Source commentary. Letters should be e-mailed with name and place of residence to [email protected].

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