Access to information is described as a key characteristic of democratic societies. However, while there is a consistent push towards information as a currency in a democratic system, there is a persistent concern about violation of the right of privacy both for the citizens and the political elite. Citizens who have the right to public information do not necessarily have the right to access the personal records of government officials. Politicians are also frequently called upon to disclose certain personal information yet they also have the right to privacy, making the question on how much right to privacy one should be willing to give up by becoming a politician, a pertinent one for the public. Balancing between the right to privacy and the public’s right to know is therefore an important consideration in the political system.
The Right to Privacy
Privacy relates to a wide array of constructs that relate to inter-personal relationships. Stojanovska and Ananievska (n.d) assert that privacy is difficult to define within the context of an individual incident. The most basic view considers privacy as the level of control one has over their own information including the extent to which that information is shared with others. Privacy is also defined as a moral value characterized by the appreciation of individuality and freedom, and relates to personal information that must not be publicly disclosed (Stojanovska & Ananievska, n.d). The concept of privacy has thus been intricately connected to several other concepts including human dignity, intimacy as well as social connections. Understanding privacy as a concept therefore requires an understanding of the different concepts and how they relate to personal information.
Privacy is built on the foundation of human dignity. The dignity of the human person is related to independence and personal autonomy and is perceived to indicate the respect of values upon which privacy is based (Jarovsky, 2018). Violating personal privacy through practices such as disclosure of personal information, conducting video surveillance on their activities, and gathering confidential information relating to someone without consent, also translates to a violation of personal dignity (Mokrosinska, 2018). As such, respecting the right to privacy even among public servants such as politicians, can considered as the respect of personal dignity. Additionally, respecting personal privacy indicates recognition of the autonomy and integrity of the person, which are directly linked to personal dignity.
The other concept that is closely associated with the right to privacy is that of intimacy. According to Levy and Schneier (2020), intimacy is based on the building of trustful relationships among people. The right to privacy gives people the freedom to express their feelings about others and to develop intimate relationships based on trust and aimed at social development. The invasion of privacy therefore, violates the integrity of the victim and subsequently results in a threat to the development of intimate relationship. Violation of privacy constraints the ability to define one’s relationships with others as a well as the limits to what can be shared with others (Suhartono, 2018). Thus, the demand by the public to be aware of all information pertaining to the lives of politicians is a concern because of its potential impacts not only on the respect for their dignity but also because of their freedom to engage in intimate relationships.
Defining privacy should also entail reference to social relationships. Outside intimate relationships, social relationships generally require the ability for individuals to control what and how much about their lives is known by others. Privacy also focuses on controlling who comes close to one, the possibility of others finding out certain information about an individual and the best practices that can help in maintaining social relationships with others (Stojanovska & Ananievska, n.d). This implies that privacy could be considered as an opportunity for an individual to constraint others from accessing personal information. This description stands regardless of whether the party seeking access to individual information is an institution or a person. When it comes to social relationships therefore, privacy can be secured through three different strategies including by securing secrecy (when no information about an individual is available to a third party), through anonymity (where there is no attention paid to the personal independence of an individual), and through solitude (where physical access to a person is limited) (Stojanovska & Ananievska, n.d). Each of these practices applies both for individuals and institutions and can be used to explain politicians’ choices of information sharing.
The scope of privacy is further expanded because of technological advancements. The press has particularly made it impossible to limit threats to individual privacy to social relationships between self and others (Rhode, 2018). The balance between the public right to know thus depends to a large extent on the characterization of the different constructs of privacy namely autonomy, intimacy and social relationships, and the public perceptions of those constructs. The role of the press in influencing the enjoyment of the right to privacy is affected by the constructs as well as the societal expectations.
The Balance between Privacy and the Right to know
Maintaining balance between the right to privacy and the public’s right to know is a serious challenge in the political environment. Political life comes with various challenges to privacy and constant public scrutiny of individuals’ lives. On the one hand, politicians are individual citizens in their own right and with the need for privacy to engage in activities such as intimate relationships and to define the scope of social relationships in which they need to be; along with these, the right to autonomy is one that every individual desires. On the other hand, the public needs to hold politicians accountable for their actions on account of the responsibilities laid down on them by the public. As such, pertinent questions include what the public is entitled to know about a politicians life (financial and personal dealings), the depth of information that needs to be accessible to the public, the opportunity cost of political life in terms of privacy loss, and where to draw the line between the public’s right to know and the individual’s right to privacy.
How Much Should the Public Know?
Understanding the concept of privacy is the first step towards determining the appropriate balance between the right to privacy and the public’s right to know. From the explanation of privacy provided in the last section, it can be said that practices that violate the core tenets of privacy should not be supported in the efforts towards satisfying the public’s right to know (Yanisky-Ravid & Lahav, 2017). Privacy first relates to autonomy, which as explained previously, relates to the independence of the individual. Information that pries into personal life beyond the office can thus be categorized as confidential information, in which the politician has the right to determine to who and to what extent information is disclosed. Contrariwise, financial information has a lot of implications for the public interest and the politicians cannot have the complete freedom to determine what is exposed to the public or not. Yanisky- Ravid and Lahav (2017) describe this difference as the principle of relevance, whereby personal information is irrelevant to the public and is only distributed based on the scope defined by the owner. The decision to expose certain personal information and not others also indicates the consideration of the exposed information as relevant for public consumption.
The concepts of autonomy and intimacy in privacy relate significantly to the determination of balance between the right to privacy and the public’s right to know. While autonomy implies giving freedom to the politician to define the scope of personal information that they would be comfortable revealing to the public, the consideration of intimacy implies that there is an ethical limit to what personal information the public can demand for.
Specifically, relationships defined by significant interpersonal trust such as familial relationships or sexual exploits, are covered within the scope of intimacy. According to Stojanovska and Ananievska (n.d), violating privacy with regards to the intimate relationships amounts to a violation of personal integrity not only of the politician whose personal information is sought but also of the individuals who are participants to the intimate relationship, and on whom the public has no right to know. Such interactions can help delineate the degree of exposure that politicians’ personal information can be accorded. Politicians have a right to prevent and to counter any efforts to expose such information to the public eye. Likewise, the public has no right or authority to demand for such information.
Social relationships as a tenet of privacy also define the scope of personal information that the public can receive due to their relationships with politicians. Exploring social relationships as the basis of privacy means that politicians can use several means to determine the nature of information to expose and the extent of privacy loss to incur as a result of the political lifestyle. Rumbold and Wilson (2019) describe the scope of the right to privacy based on the information that one decides to expose to the public. According to Rumbold and Wilson, the right to privacy starts and ends with personal decision to expose information to the public. This applies both to individuals outside the political systems and those within the political systems. Accordingly, politicians as other individuals can define the scope of their right to privacy based on their social relationships with others. To protect information that is not intended for public consumption, politicians can use any of the methods described above namely, securing secrecy, ensuring anonymity, and through solitude.
Defining the Line
The right to privacy is enjoyed by politicians only to the extent to which they desire to enjoy it and which is defined by public policy. On financial information, the public’s right to know is undoubted. However, personal life is characterized by forfeiture of the right to privacy by the magnitude of exposure allowed by the politician. Securing secrecy can be attained by defining the level of intimacy in relationships such that only information that the owner finds suitable for public consumption is revealed out of the private sphere (Rumbold & Wilson, 2019). Politicians also already enjoy privacy on account of anonymity except where public policy defines their behaviour in relation to information handling such as when dealing with financial information. Solitude can be attained due to the already limited physical access to politicians attributable to state and federal protection.
Maintaining a balance between the public’s right to know and the right to privacy can also be discussed based on the principle of privacy relativism. Based on privacy relativism, it is difficult to conclude whether privacy in all aspects of life would be equally valuable to all people or whether it is valued differently depending on differences in cultures, ethical and customary values of individuals (Hughes, 2019). This difficulty arises from the fact that when one politician would consider certain information as intimate and thus protect the privacy of that information, another politician would be comfortable revealing the same information to the public, making it impossible to define the line between the public’s right to information and the right to privacy among politicians based on absolute descriptions or values. To address this challenge, Mokrosinska (2018) introduces the concept of consent when it comes to the right to privacy in relation to the choice that people make regarding what information to avail to the public. Reference to consent implies information is only considered for public consumption if the owner of that information allows it.
The balance between the right to privacy and the public’s right to know present a challenge to the political elites. Defining the nature of information that the politicians can expose to the public and the level of privacy rights forfeited by being a politician can best be achieved by understanding the nature of privacy based on its core tenets including autonomy, intimacy and the influence of social relationships. Besides financial information which is revealed due to the principle of relevance, politicians basically have several approaches for controlling their privacy, and public ethics supports consideration of intimate information as protected within the right to privacy. Privacy relativism and the principle of consent that come with the ability to choose what to expose and what to keep private therefore make it difficult to define the line between the public’s right to know and the right to privacy among politicians.
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