Fake Transparency: The Trend Towards 'Secure Reading Rooms'

29/09/2016 13:44

Every year, on 28th September, transparency campaigners, governments and international bodies such as UNESCO celebrate International Right to Know Day. The right to access information is a fundamental human right which permits us to participate in democratic decision-making and hold our decision-makers to account.

However, as with all rights, the right to information is one that we must continuously fight to defend. Elected representatives like myself are constantly struggling to access the information we need to do our job, to protect the public interest and to defend public health and the environment. Which is where the bizarre concept of the "secure reading room" comes in - a place where elected representatives can go to view important information.

The idea behind this is that the information in the room is so sensitive that access to it must be restricted. When you enter the room you must sign a confidentiality agreement and hand over all your personal belongings, other than a pen and piece of paper. Having read what you can and frantically scribbled down some notes, you are then sworn to secrecy on what you have learnt; unable to share any findings with the people you represent.

I previously visited such a room to look through TTIP papers - the secretive trade deal being discussed between the US and EU. Yesterday, I again handed over my phone, my laptop; had my bag searched, and signed to say I wouldn't reveal my findings with the wider world. The issue in question this time was the controversial weed killer glyphosate.

Earlier this year, EU member states failed to agree on whether to re-authorise the sale of glyphosate within Europe due to concerns about its safety. Previously, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) had declared that glyphosate was probably not carcinogenic. In contrast, the World Health Organisation's cancer research arm, IARC, considered glyphosate to be 'probably carcinogenic.'

When asked why its assessment differed from that of IRAC, EFSA claimed that it had based its decision on a number of unpublished studies that IRAC had not seen. Naturally, and in the interests of transparency, not to mention public health, the Green group in the European Parliament requested access to these documents.

The EFSA has so far failed to publish the studies, falling back on arguments by the agribusiness companies funding the studies that publication would harm their commercial interests. This will do nothing to dent accusations over the years that the EFSA is guilty of conflicts of interest and lacks independence in the way their scientific assessments are carried out.

With the EFSA refusing to play ball, step forward Monsanto - the world's largest producer of glyphosate - together with Syngenta and other agribusiness corporations, with a selection of studies buried away in a 'secure reading room', to which they deign to grant access.

Having joined forces under the dubiously named "Glyphosate Task Force", these corporations have lobbied the EFSA hard to get authorisation for glyphosate to be sold on the European market. This group of industry actors has then set about emulating the reading rooms concept, set up by the European Commission and other governments, so they can avoid making their studies on the health risks of glyphosate publicly available. So, as if the reading room concept wasn't insult enough to the idea of transparency, this one was set up by the very corporations producing the controversial chemical in question.

Unfortunately, I cannot of course reveal what I found out in the reading room. What I can say is that the whole point of publishing scientific studies is that they are then accessible for other scientists to review. Secret science is not real science.

This is why as we marked the occasion of Right to Know Day, I joined the protest outside this latest reading room in Brussels. It is totally inappropriate for private companies to control transparency in this way and to put their profits ahead of our right to information. We need to put the "freedom" back into "freedom of information." so that we know how our health and environment might be impacted. As policy makers we have a right to verify or challenge findings and to work for the public good.