ISSUE-046

Some people believe it is often necessary, even desirable, for political leaders to withhold information from the public. Others believe that the public has a right to be fully informed.


Write a response in which you discuss which view more closely aligns with your own position and explain your reasoning for the position you take. In developing and supporting your position, you should address both of the views presented.


Should the governments withhold information from the public? Those who emphasize the civil rights would definitely vote no to this question, citing that it is the public’s unalienable right to be fully informed of the governments. On the other hand, some would argue that in practice it is often necessary for government officials to restrict the public access to certain information due to various concerns. In my opinion, both views are reasonable, and their seeming exclusiveness embodies the conflict of politics on the theoretical and practical levels. However, such conflicts are not inherently without a solution, which I shall elaborate below.


To begin with, political theories establish that ultimately the legitimacy of any government must come from its people. In other words, the formation of a system of governance is a transaction between the government and the people, who give power to the former entity in exchange of certain service such as defense, education, and healthcare. At the same time, in order to prevent the government from abusing such power, people have the right to hold the officials accountable. One way of doing so is through the exposure of government activities to the public. For instance, even though the president of the United States could arguably be the most powerful person on Earth, he or she is still subject to public scrutiny and his or her daily routine shall be faithfully documented by the press corps and made available for public inquiry. Therefore, the public should be granted access to all information that government processes (at least from a theoretical standpoint), which stems from the social contract between the governors and the governed.


That being said, unconditionally exposing all government information to the public will lead to significant disruptions to the society, for the reason that certain sensitive information needs to be kept in secret. If such sensitive information gets exposed, the benefits of the society would be undermined. Say, in the wartime, the military strategy and the deployment of troops of a nation need to be kept away from the public; otherwise the enemy may take advantage of such information and defeat the country. Similar examples could be found in the case of Edward Snowden, the whistleblower who exposed the monitoring program of the United States government agencies on the USA’s allies and adversaries alike. Though the very ethical nature of this monitoring program is in serious doubt, practically the information it collected has helped the United States to gain strategic advantages in foreign diplomacy. Once the existence of such programs gets leaked to the journalists and the rest of the world, efforts to collect intelligence were quickly thwarted and the advantage once enjoyed by the US governments no longer existed. Because exposing certain information to the public could lead to negative consequences, sometimes it is desirable for the officials to keep such information withheld.


Although the two stances discussed above appear to be mutually exclusive, there are ways to reconcile them. That is, people’s right to be fully informed can be guaranteed, but such rights are not limitless. On the other hand, while government can withhold certain information in the name of national security, it cannot withhold it forever. For instance, almost in every country there is classified information that is kept out of touch by the public. Yet, there is an expiration date to such secrecy and once the status of being classified expires, the public shall be able to exercise their full civil rights of being informed. That way could both make sure the accountability of the governments without putting national security as well as the welfare of the society at risk. So I agree with both of the views and think there could be a middle ground where the interest of both sides can be satisfied.


To sum up, the public indeed has the right to be fully informed, but this does not necessarily mean that governments cannot withhold certain information. One way to reconcile such a conflict is by granting the government certain privileges in keeping secret information but allowing the public access after certain periods of time.

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