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National security and canned sardines

Published in Ahram Online on February 9, 2013

Nothing protects national security more than responsible citizenship, critical to which is freedom of — and access to — information

There is a famous story that is probably more fiction than fact about how Military Intelligence in the 1960s was excessive in its censorship of the media, to the extent that it objected to publishing an article reporting a drop in the availability of canned sardines on the market.

Their objection was that while the writer did not mean to divulge military secrets, putting this information in the public domain could benefit the enemy. The logic being, the enemy could easily calculate the number of locally produced and imported sardine cans, then calculate how much is consumed on the civilian market and how many by the army. From there, the enemy could make an educated estimate of the size of Egypt’s combat forces.

As I mentioned, this story is more likely an anecdote and propagating it on a wide scale was intended to warn the public about the dangers of information and consequences of rumours. It was a reminder that even trivial things may not be trivial at all, and the authorities are vigilant about national security.

Also, that irresponsible chitter chatter and subversive rumours pose a threat to national security, and therefore firm rules must be established about what can be said and published in the press and media.

I am writing on this subject because of draft laws currently being prepared by various ministries about the right to information and free circulation of information. As a society, we have come a long way on this subject since the 1960s; Military Intelligence (which today we refer to as “sovereign entities”) has loosened its grip on the media, and we have made huge progress in media freedom after the emergence of independent newspapers and satellite channels, blogs, Facebook and Twitter. Nonetheless, the security mentality still controls much of freedom of publication, and I believe we need to launch a serious dialogue about the relationship between national security on the one hand and freedom of opinion and free circulation of information on the other.

The “intelligence rationale” about free circulation of information is sound and with merit. It views information as a treasure that should not be relinquished, and believes it is important no matter how small or trivial or worthless. This is because the intelligence community in every country, and not only in Egypt, believes that its top priority is to gather, store and study information to discover risks to national security.

Since its primary task is gathering information, it is naturally suspicious of anyone who reveals information and publishes it. Every shred of information is valuable and every piece of information — no matter how trivial — if revealed could jeopardise national security. Every iota of information could be maliciously manipulated by the enemies of the country through threatening action, which the person who divulged the information could not even imagine, no matter how well their intentions.

This intelligence mindset, as I mentioned, has its own logic and merits and intelligence agencies and other “sovereign entities” should not abandon it since information gathering, storage and concealment is the job of any intelligence agency.

As a society, however, we should find a middle ground between this intelligence mindset and freedom of circulation and access to information, which counters that the value of information resides in its dissemination, availability and circulation and not in hoarding it. This opposing rationale, which can be called the logic of rights, believes that free circulation of information is a basic human right that cannot be violated or diminished. Also, even if the intelligence mindset has its merits, we should not allow national security precautions to inhibit the circulation of information except in a very limited way.

This human rights rationale believes that freedom of flow of information boosts the values of democracy and participation by society. Information is vital for the democratic process; if the people don’t know what’s happening and if the actions of government officials and public figures are concealed and secret, then the citizenry would not be able to participate in events in their society.

The free flow of information is also vital in the electoral process; without detailed knowledge about candidate platforms voters cannot choose between them. Similarly, without disclosing information about the budgets of ministries and government bodies, their future plans, management structure, and other official information, candidates themselves could not draw up their own policies built on solid data.

Availability of information also allows the citizenry to oversee state agencies, and thus effectively contribute to curbing corruption and abuse of power. This makes free information flow vital to raising the efficiency of the government apparatus and improving its performance. Evidence of this, according to Nobel Prize winner for economics Amartya Sen, is that democratic societies that have an independent press and free flow of information have never experienced catastrophic famines.

Needless to say, free information flow is essential and vital for the press and scientific research. We often hear of difficulties facing journalists in accessing information and sensitive data because official entities refuse to disclose information. We also often hear about academic research stumbling and terminating because of lack of security permits or because the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics (CAPMAS) objected to a research questionnaire, under the pretext that opinion polls could divulge information to the enemy about the domestic front and thus could be a national security risk. These security caveats caused the quality of the press and scientific research in the country to decline.

Everyone also knows the importance of availability of information for investment. A serious investor, naturally, needs to conduct a feasibility study before starting a project, and this study is worthless unless it is built on accurate facts, figures and statistics that executive and administrative bodies should make available. But in reality, many efforts by investors were wasted because administrative bodies procrastinated in providing this critical information.

Thus, if the intelligence rationale about freedom of information has merits, then the logic of rights also has merits because it argues that access and dissemination of information strengthens national security.

Nothing can protect national security more than a responsible citizen who exercises his political rights based on knowledge and diligence; or a meticulous journalist who builds his stories on accurate information; or a serious academic who can contribute to his country’s academic renaissance through research and experiment in an open academic environment; or an investor who can study the market so he can take a decision to build a factory or workshop or shop.

It may be true that publishing stories about the availability of canned sardines is what compromised national security in 1967, but we can also say that the mindset of caution and opacity that caused a lack of transparency and negligible public oversight of state institutions was an even greater danger to national security. Our defeat in 1967 was not caused by disclosing information about canned sardines, but because such information was not published.

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