New SOP for sharing information with the Media issued by MoICE

On April 28, the Ministry of Industry, Commerce, and Employment (MoICE) released an executive order to all government agencies to use its Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) for sharing information to the media.

While the intent maybe good the highly bureaucratic SOP process with a lot of exception areas where information is not to be shared may only lead to more confusion and barriers to get information.

There are three principles that guide the implementation of the SOP: balance, security, and timeliness. In the executive order to use the SOP the MoICE says its intentions is to create a formalized channel and process to facilitate information sharing.

The Ministry has found that in the past, such standard procedures have been missing or non-existent for agencies and states, “We have a media focal, but this role was so volatile and undervalued that such appointments and roles were not formally established. In the present SOP, we have a HRC committee in the respective agencies that will appoint media focal points and ensure accountability.”

“Through the SOP, we have strengthened the role of media focal point and media spokesperson to enable information sharing with the media,” the ministry added.

Upon asking the Ministry on whether the SOP will be a barrier or not, the Ministry said, “We do not view this as a barrier but an opportunity to improve information sharing as a public service. Except for information mentioned in Section 4.0 under exceptions, we treat all other information as public information. Our SOP draws its inspiration from the Constitution and ICM Act (2018).”

Reporters are concerned about Section 4.0 under the exceptions because they worry that every piece of material they request may fall under one of the broad eight SOP exceptions, making their jobs more challenging. 

The exceptions mention documents sent by third parties under expectation of confidentiality; documents whose disclosure would impact the proper conduct of any activity of the agency; internal interoffice documents including draft documents that can impact the agency’s decision making process; documents of internal investigations; and information whose disclosure is likely to undermine the policy dialogue with the agency’s collaborating partners.

The other worry for journalists is that the SOP asks for the appointment of media focal and spokesperson. In the past such positions floated by the former MoIC Ministry in the form of Information and Media Officer or IMOs backfired as these were junior people and they were in fact used to block information for a while as journalists were asked to meet IMOs who were too junior and clueless.

However, a positive is that the SOP sets a time limit saying information should be given one day and in case of detailed information within five days and even if that is not possible then the media focal has to give the reason and new timeline.

The other positive is an effort to appoint more senior people as media focal person and spokespersons.

However, reporters worry that the process of obtaining information may become even more challenging given all the rules in place around information sharing.

The Ministry assured there is a provision in the SOP for review and update in consultation with agencies and relevant stakeholders; where, if certain clauses seem too restrictive or curtail information sharing, this clause can always be removed providing the media a fair chance.

Upon asking the Ministry about the authenticity and completeness of the information, they responded, “The respective media focal point and spokesperson are responsible for sharing information collected from the concerned department or offices. Since the process of collecting the requested information is not solely carried out by the media focal and is rather done collaboratively, the shared information will be authentic. In case the requested information is not available or if it requires more time, the media focal point will communicate accordingly to the media as stated in the SOP.”

The executive order to use the SOP came into effect the day it was released.

The SOP for sharing public information with the media highlights the purpose, application, access to information, expectations, information sharing process, roles and responsibilities, and monitoring and evaluation.

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