Saturday, June 7, 2008

Govt says freedom of info law will ‘ultimately’ be enacted

Govt says freedom of info law will ‘ultimately’ be enacted
Stabroek News news item. Saturday June 7, 2008

Winston Murray
The Office of the President (OP) says that Freedom of Information legislation has never been rejected by the PPP/C government and it has responded to commitments in its elections manifestos and to public sentiment by making government information freely available “like never before.”
OP says too that “ultimately legislation on Freedom of Information will be enacted, recognizing that it is but only one aspect of access to information.”
However, PNCR Chair-man Winston Murray and AFC Leader Raphael Trotman who has laid a private member’s bill on Freedom of Information in the National Assembly since November 2006 say that making information available should be a legal entitlement and not an act of goodwill on the part of a government.
According to an OP statement in response to two newspaper articles on the issue of the need for Freedom of Information legislation, which came out of presentations made at a training workshop for parliamentarians and the media, “the enlightenment offered Guyana at the Commonwealth Parliament-ary Association conference by the Commonwealth Parlia-mentarians and their local acolytes is one of rejection.”

Raphael Trotman
Presentations on FOI laws and its implementation and uses were made at the workshop by FOI advocate Toby Mendel, Trinidad and Tobago Minister of Information Neil Parsanlal and T&T television journalist Sasha Mohammed.
The OP statement said that “the rejection is aimed at those who religiously take developments of democracy being implemented by the PPP/C administration totally out of context.”
OP said further that this is not the time to question the course of development of democracy in the country but time for the government to state clearly that FOI legislation was never rejected by the PPP/C administration.
Moreover, the implications of FOI legislation are being examined and addressed and the administration is insisting on being recognized as having responded to its elections manifestos and to public sentiment by making information freely available like never before.
OP said also that government sectors have been providing information through television, radio, newsprint, the internet and public consultations on routine, policy and mandatory matters. Mention was also made of cabinet press briefings, information on awards of duty-free concessions and remissions, and the budgetary process.
And ultimately, OP asserted, FOI legislation would be enacted, recognising that it is but only “one aspect of access to information.”
Legalising access
Commenting on the last statement, Murray said that it may be only one aspect of access to information but it was “the most important. No one and no society should rely on the goodness of the government to provide information only when it deems it necessary…. You may have a good government today, which provides information as a goodwill measure, and a bad government tomorrow which provides none at all.”
The government providing information as a matter of goodwill and legalising access to information are qualitatively two different things and they cannot be compared, Murray said, reiterating that “no one should rely on the goodness of a government for information. That should be a right.”
At present, he said, there should be a lot of information that should be in the public domain that is not. He gave the examples of the need for public information on agreements the government has entered into with the International Monetary Fund; privatization agreements; and the Sanata Textile Mill agreement with Queens Atlantic Investments, particularly for those doing scholarly and other research.
He said the costs incurred by the state in the hosting of Cricket World Cup 2007 “is a case in which the government is not forthcoming;” and the sale of land to and terms of the investment to unknown investors to construct a hotel in Kingston. He also referred to the issue of the Buddy’s International Hotel agreement with the government into which it was written that casino licences would be issued pending legislation. This was done even before consultations on casinos got underway.
The disposal of public property, such as the textile mills and the land in Kingston for the construction of the hotel, he said, should be subjected to transparency procedures. It is only with constant prodding that deals made behind closed doors are revealed in bits and pieces.
Murray said that it was only because of pressures being brought to bear on the government that the head of Guyana Office for Investment (Go-Invest) Geoff DaSilva and the head of National Industry & Commercial Investment Ltd (NICIL) Winston Brassington that some information on the Sanata textile deal was made public. “Why can’t this agreement be placed in the National Assembly,” he queried.
The remarks on the quality of the presentations made at the workshop, he said, were unwarranted, noting that they were genuine efforts to share experiences. “People are well motivated. Let us not cast aspersions,” he said.
Commenting on the same issue, Trotman said that the government cannot fool all the people of Guyana, especially when it is fighting to hide many questionable transactions involving state property and public funds, and issues of crime such as the whole phantom squad saga, which people should know about.
There is financial accountability over which the government is also backing down, in spite of the budgetary process. Some financial matters are not brought before the National Assembly, he said, such as the Lotto Funds. It is not known how it is being dispensed with and the criteria for allocation. There is no accountability on the Lotto Funds, he said.
Trotman said that it is over a year since Guyana hosted a series of matches in the Cricket World Cup 2007 and “we still do not know how much funds were spent on that project.” He said he laid questions in parliament on the very issue but as yet the Minister of Culture, Youth and Sport has not answered them.
No unemployment stats
“We have not had statistics from the Bureau of Statistics on unemployment for years and the statistics are not available to researchers,” he said, adding that, “What GINA and the President’s Diary put out does not satisfy the basic right to Freedom of Information. It is typical of George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’ behaviour.”
Questions are also being asked about such investments as the Buddy’s International Hotel from its establishment, which involved public funds, to the sale of the hotel without transparency, he said. It is still not known whether or not the state was paid back the advance given to the hotel, he said, adding that the whole deal should be laid in parliament.
No one can put a meter or a gauge on how much information should be given out, he said, and it is also an act of cowardice to put on a welcoming front to the CPA presenters then castigate and denounce them in their absence.

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