Saturday, May 31, 2008

Freedom of info law ‘oxygen’ of democracy– advocate tells workshop

Freedom of info law ‘oxygen’ of democracy– advocate tells workshop
Stabroek News news item. Saturday May 31, 2008
By Miranda La Rose

Toby Mendel
It is embarrassing for any country that claims to be a democracy not to have a freedom of information law, an advocate for freedom of expression said yesterday at a seminar at which top government and opposition members of Parliament were present.
Canadian Toby Mendel of Article 19 - a global campaign for free expression – who has authored a book and several articles on freedom of information laws, said that at present there were 75 countries with freedom of information laws, with the numbers changing regularly, as there were some 30 in various stages of progression.
Noting that a freedom of information bill had been tabled in the Guyana Parliament, Mendel, addressing members of parliament and representatives of the media at the four-day Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA)-sponsored workshop at the Grand Coastal Inn, yesterday expressed the hope that it could become law in a reasonable time.
The discussion that flowed from his presentation, ‘Overview of FOI: Importance (for good governance, democracy and development), trends and legislative principles,’ featured comments and questions relative to the need for more transparency and reasons why there might be a delay in the enactment of FOI law.
In recent times, Mendel said, all the multilateral financial institutions (MFIs) have adopted their own policies on pushing FOI laws. The move to adopt freedom of information legislation by governments and MFIs, he said, was probably one of the most remarkable events to occur since the end of World War II.
The right to access information, he felt, came about because of globalization and the emergence of 62 new countries, with the majority in Europe, the emergence of new information technologies, and the public now recognizing the power of information.
He noted that with access to information and new information technologies, a person could sit at desk and talk to world, put on website information that the whole world reads and journalists could investigate and expose corruption sitting at their desks and without going out of the room.
The power of information and the right to access information is now more important to citizens than before and it has reached a critical stage to where countries have adopted legislation.
“It is now embarrassing for a country, which claims to be a democracy, not to have one of those laws,” he said adding that the UK adopted legislation in 2000 and it was totally unacceptable that the UK was one of last countries in Europe to do so.
In the Caribbean Trinidad and Tobago (T&T), Jamaica, Antigua and Barbuda and the Cayman Islands have FOI laws in place.
T&T Minister of Information Neil Parsanlal shared his country’s experience and T&T TV 6 journalist Sasha Mohammed shared a journalist’s experience in putting the FOI laws to work.
Noting that FOI laws were important to everyone, including the media, women’s groups, environmental groups, citizens groups, Mendel said the fundamental premise behind this right was that government held information not for itself but as a service for the people and people should be able to access that information.
Civil servants, who were working for the people and withholding information from the people practice the wrong model he said, adding, “That is not the democratic model of governance”.
He said access to information was the fundamental underpinning and “the oxygen of democracy” adding that if people did not know about governments, their policies and programmes, they could not make sensible decisions. He said long-standing experiences chronicled by development actors showed that where people took part in development policies and programmes, there were better results but where this was not done misplaced development resulted.
Access to information, too, he said was fundamental to accountability and good governance. If there was no information about what government was doing, he said there would be no way in which the government’s actions could be scrutinized, assessed or criticized and this was detrimental to a democracy.
Access to information was also important for exposure of corruption and he noted that stories were abundant about this aspect all over the world. This was one reason why governments in many instances were not keen on enactment of legislation in this regard.
The exposure of corruption, he noted, had brought down governments.
In the Guyana context, the FOI law was laid in Parliament in November 2006 as a private member’s bill by AFC MP Raphael Trotman but has stayed there, since, although it has the support of the PNCR-1G and the GAP-ROAR, there was no commitment of support from the party in government, the PPP/C.
Mendel also spoke about the characteristics of the right to access information in terms of procedure, provisions of the law including request modalities, timeframe within which information should be provided, the refusal of information and judicial review in the event of refusal.
The FOI laws, he noted, should also set out a regime of legitimate exceptions, which would cover commercial and tender processes, private medical records to be given only to the individual concerned, national security interests and legally privileged information.
One of the problem areas, he said, was secrecy laws. However, he said, provisions should be made for the FOI laws to protect secrecy and for the FOI laws to override the secrecy laws in the public interest.
Mendel also spoke about the right to protect civil servants who provide information to the public as requested and for whistle blowers as well.
Giving a background to the FOI laws, which first came into being in Sweden in 1766, he noted that the information revolution as he called it only gained momentum since the end of the Cold War at about 1990.
By 1990 only 15 countries had freedom of information legislation and no inter-government organisation, international financial institution or global governmental organisation had adopted right to information policies.

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