Transparency is key to democracy.

So obvious, but yet so fragile.

My colleague from the other side of this page has eloquently written about state legislators tinkering with Kentucky’s Open Records law. Not good for the people of the state, he concluded.

I’m a strong supporter of open records, open government, transparency in public office and everything else that falls in that purview.

As journalists handling sensitive documents, photos, etc., we’re trained to weigh the public’s right to know and minimizing harm.

Let’s talk about transparency for a bit.

I grew up during martial law in the Philippines. For history buffs, yes, those were the Marcos years. President Ferdinand Marcos placed the entire country under martial law on Sept. 21, 1972.

There were curfews, rolling blackouts, and this deal authorities there called preventive prosecution, which simply means they can only have a thought of you committing a crime to “justify” an arrest and detention.

Along with political figures critical of the Marcos administration, journalists were the first ones hauled off to prison camps — most newspapers were also shuttered. Martial law was lifted on Jan. 17, 1981.

As a kid growing up in a land fertile with injustices, I never really realized the importance of transparency until after I became a reporter in the 1990s and interviewed a grandmother in Manila, a victim of martial law.

Among the thousands who disappeared during that time was her son, a political activist who often led protests in front of the Presidential Palace.

Before martial law, people had access to information from jails and military detention facilities about their incarcerated loved ones — they would know exactly where they’re being held, what charges, court dates, etc.

That was not the case after the declaration. Families were left with no answers.

Their sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, husbands, wives, simply vanished without a trace.

So was the case of the woman I interviewed. Her son was “nabbed” by the constabulary and was never seen again.

Her persistence during the search for her son also landed her in military detention, where some unspeakable things were done to her.

All she had left when I talked with her was a wrinkled photo of her “unico hijo,” the scars of her ordeal and a hole in her heart.

Tears flowed from her eyes as she told me of her son’s plans of becoming a physician so he can open free clinics in the poorest communities.

A single parent, she worked at a department store in the mornings and a shipping company at nights to put him through medical school.

Weekends she took on providing laundry and ironing jobs.

Now she’s left with only the pain of yesteryears, the torment in her mind will never cease with the passing of time.

If only there was information of the whereabouts of her son.

If only …

One thing needs to be clear, public records are just that, public records. Officials are mere custodians of those records. Sure there’s some access, but if it’s cumbersome for journalists to get those documents, how much more difficult for the citizenry? Barriers (that’s what I call them) are often placed — fees, red tape, etc.

And then there are some readily available through government websites.

Nowadays we take for granted jail records we can easily access, or arrest sheets readily available to the public.

Or even case files from court.

So, take away a little here and a little there won’t make a difference, you say?

Until you’ve been in a place where all is gone, then you don’t have a grasp of what you’re giving up.

John Mangalonzo is the editor of The Paducah Sun. You can email him at jmangalonzo@paducahsun.com. Follow him on Twitter, @jmangalonzo.

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