Govt. acknowledges Freedom of Information Act is inevitable…AFC leader says he is now optimistic
Kaieteur News news item. 2 June 2008
Leader of the Alliance For Change (AFC), Raphael Trotman, says that following four days of deliberations, where the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) was given significant prominence, he was now more comfortable that the process of implementing the act constituted moving forward.
This was noted by Trotman in an invited comment at the close of the Guyana Workshop on Parliament and the Media on Friday.
The activity was well attended by Members of Parliament from both sides of the House, as well as international resource personnel, including Baroness Valerie Amos; Toby Mendel of Article 49, a London-based organisation for freedom of expression; renowned Caribbean journalist Sasha Mohammad; Trinidad and Tobago’s Minister of Information Neil Parsanal; John Barrit, a Bermudan MP, as well as John Heppel, a UK MP.
In an interview with this newspaper following the workshop, Trotman said that he was heartened to hear Prime Minister Samuel Hinds and other Government ministers acknowledge that the implementation of the Act was inevitable.
He posited that even though he is a lot more comfortable with the process now, he is being cautiously optimistic. He added that in a way he feels vindicated that an idea is gaining momentum towards becoming a reality.
He, however, posited that the gained momentum will see him forcing the Bill through the National Assembly in a hurry.
According to Trotman, the idea of freedom of information must now be expanded from the political realm to that of a multi-stakeholder-driven agenda, noting that everyone -- not just politicians -- must become involved in the process, and consensus must be arrived at.
The move to pass and implement the bill is even closer to reality, given that the participants of the workshops drafted a list of recommendations to be addressed.
Some of these are that “Guyana should enact Freedom of Information legislation within a clear time frame, and should thereafter make efforts to implement it fully.”
The move comes one day after Mendel challenged the Government’s side of the House, saying that it would be an embarrassment to any Government to choose not to implement the FOIA.
In reaffirming his point, he noted that the information on public authorities was a fundamental right of the populace; and further, capacity constraints must not be looked at as any reason not to adopt the legislation.
Guyana Press Association President Denis Chabrol also made his input on behalf of media workers, saying that 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.
According to Chabrol, the legislation would be a welcome 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.”
The 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.
Trotman, who is primarily the driving force behind the legislation, tabled a draft of the FOIA in 2006.
Subsequently, on December 14 last, he took steps to have the Bill deferred in order to save it from being thrown out during 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 Government will be crucial if the bill is to see the light of day.
During the 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 the 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 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 to extend the right to 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 whom 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 matters 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.
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.