Failure to implement Freedom of Information Act a national embarrassment—British analyst
Kaieteur News news story. Saturday 31 May 2008
“Essential ingredient in a country that is often saturated with allegations of corruption, racial discrimination, racially and politically motivated crimes, nepotism, death-squads and the like,” GPA President
It would be an embarrassment to any government to choose not to implement the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
This is according to Toby Mendel of Article 49 which is a London-based organisation for freedom of expression.
Mendel was speaking to Members of Parliament at a Guyana Workshop on Parliament and the Media.
According to Mendel, information related to Public Companies was prepared by the company on behalf of the citizens. It was the fundamental right of the populace to have access to it.
He noted that the legislation must provide for limitations but public interest, will in most cases, override the limitations and force the need for disclosure.
Regarding criticism of capacity constraints, Mendel said that this must not be looked at as any reason to not adopt the legislation.
Guyana Press Association President, Denis Chabrol also used the opportunity to lash out at those Members of Parliament who stymie the process necessary for the passage of the Bill.
“Today's discourse on Freedom of Information comes at a time when the National Assembly is yet to debate and possibly approve a Freedom of Information Bill and we are yet to receive any definitive signals from the Government of Guyana and the governing People’s Progressive Party Civic (PPPC)…Thus far, we have been treated to a less than enthusiastic response from the main opposition People’s National Congress Reform (PNCR).”
Having the freedom to access information is a human right that is enshrined in Article 146 of the Constitution of Guyana and Article 19 of the United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights, Chabrol said.
According to Chabrol, the legislation would be a welcomed tool for a journalist’s tool-kit. “If we are to be more authentic, fact-based, and credible…These are essential ingredients in a country that is often saturated with allegations of corruption, racial discrimination, racially and politically-motivated crimes, nepotism, death-squads and the like.”
Yesterday’s workshop also benefited from a presentation by Trinidad and Tobago’s Minister of Information, Neil Parsanal, on the Freedom of Information Act that was recently introduced in that country.
According to Parsanal, the populace of that country has responded well to the idea and facilities to access information on public companies.
Sasha Mohammad, a journalist based at TV 6 in Trinidad who also had an input on the topic, said that despite the teething problems in implementing the FOIA it has proven to be a powerful piece of legislation.
She did note that following the implementation of such a Bill there should be an awareness programme alerting the citizens to their right to information on Public Authorities.
Status of local FOIA
Leader of the Alliance for Change (AFC), Raphael Trotman, who is pushing for the Freedom of Information Bill to be passed by the National Assembly, has noted his caution in proceeding to lay the Bill in that he wants the support of the government side of the House first.
This, according to Trotman, does not exist at the moment and he does not want to “kill the Bill” given that if he proceeds without the support of the government side and there is a vote against it then he could not take it to the House again until the next Parliament.
Trotman tabled the Freedom of Information Act in 2006 and on December 14, last, took steps to have the Bill deferred in order to save it from being thrown out during the stage of its first reading.
He later told reporters that this was done to allow Government time for study and assessment of the administrative implications of the bill and to allow for broad-based consultations.
According to Trotman, a compromise with the Government will be crucial if the bill is to see the light of day.
During debate on the 2007 Budget, Trotman had indicated that the passage of legislation to allow access to information is more important than personal endeavours, and indicated his willingness to step aside and allow the Government to take up the initiative.
Vice Chair of the party, Sheila Holder, wrote in an AFC column in Kaieteur News that once Government supports the passage of the Bill, Guyana will join some 60 other countries in this hemisphere that have enacted freedom of information legislation.
She stated that the freedom of information has become the international consensus deemed to be the impetus needed to bolster transparency and accountability, to curtail corruption, and raise the standards of governance in developing countries struggling to alleviate poverty.
The Bill proposed by Trotman is based on the Trinidad model.
The call for freedom of information legislation has been widely made, especially resounding from the media corps, which find it difficult to access information related to Government spending and various projects.
The Bill clearly spells out the objective is to extend the right of members of the public to access information in the possession of public authorities by making available to the public information about the operations of public authorities.
In particular, the Bill holds public officials to ensuring that the authorizations, policies, rules and practices affecting members of the public in their dealings with public authorities are readily available to persons affected by those authorizations, policies, rules and practices.
While the Bill generally states the right of access to information in documentary form in the possession of public authorities, it also states that such documents could be withheld for the protection of essential public interests and the private and business affairs of persons in respect of whose information is collected and held by public authorities.
To protect Guyana’s territorial integrity, the Bill states, documents could be withheld on the ground that the release of such information would prejudice relations between the Government and that of any other State.
The Bill also states that documents could be withheld if their release would prejudice relations between the Government and an international organisation of states.
If documents would divulge information or matter communicated in confidence, or on behalf of the government of another state to the Government of Guyana, or to a person receiving a communication on behalf of the government of that state, then the Bill allows for those documents to be withheld.
Documents that would disclose matters in the nature of opinion, advice or recommendation prepared by an officer or Minister of Government could be withheld.
The Bill will allow a person to seek legal action against documents that are withheld by public officials.
But, no action for defamation, breach of confidence or infringement of copyright may be brought against the public authority or against the responsible Minister, or an officer or employee of the public authority as a result of providing personal information of someone who subsequently claims it to be inaccurate, according to one of the provisions.
The Bill states that a person who willfully destroys or damages a record or document required to be maintained and preserved commits an offence and is liable, on summary conviction, to a fine of $5,000 and imprisonment for six months.
However, if a person knowingly destroys or damages a record or document which is required to be maintained and preserved while a request for access to the document is pending, that person has committed an offence and is liable, on summary conviction, to a fine of $50,000 and imprisonment for two years.