Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Guyana not ready for FOI legislation—PM Hinds…already enjoys 80% freedom of information

Guyana not ready for FOI legislation—PM Hinds…already enjoys 80% freedom of information
Kaieteur News news item. Tuesday 3 June 2008.

“Opening windows for more freedom to access information enabled civil society to prevent misuse and waste of public funds and prevent governments from gravitating towards despotism (dictatorship/autocracy)” - CPA

Guyana is already experiencing some 80 per cent of freedom of information, in that the Government already makes the information available in a proactive manner.
This is according to Prime Minister Samuel Hinds, while speaking with media operatives yesterday.
He was reiterating a recent release from the Office of the President which stated that, “Government sectors have introduced, and have been providing through TV, radio, newsprint, Internet and public consultations, information on routine policy and mandatory matters, Cabinet press briefing, GRA annual reports of awards of duty free concessions and remissions, the budget process with the submissions of audited statements of state entities, Ministry of Finance reports on tendering and procurement, websites as accessible as can be, having been created for most ministries and agencies.”
To this end, leader of the main opposition party, PNCR, Robert Corbin, said that without the Act any information provided is only discretionary, but with the legislation it will be obligatory to provide whatever information is requested.
The essence of the Freedom of Information Act, according to the Commonwealth Parliament Association (CPA), is the empowerment of the populace to request any piece of information (with few exemptions, such as medical records) held by a public authority.
One such utilization of the Act was recently cited by a renowned Trinidadian journalist, Sasha Mohammad.
According to Mohammad, one such incident was where there was a request for the salaries and monies paid to the director of a bank. This was only facilitated through the already enacted FOI in Trinidad and Tobago.
Prime Minister Hinds said that the enactment of FOI required extensive preparatory work, such as the enhanced recording storage and recovery of information required, among others.
But according to Toby Mendel of Article 19 (a UK-based organization on freedom of expression), capacity constraints must not be looked at as any reason to not adopt the legislation.
He added that it would be an embarrassment to any government to choose not to implement the FOI Act.
A recent meeting of CPA study group launched by Peter Ala Adjetey, Speaker of the Parliament of Ghana, had said that opening windows for more freedom to access information enabled civil society to prevent misuse and waste of public funds and prevent governments from gravitating towards despotism (dictatorship/autocracy).
The CPA study noted that Freedom of Information was a fundamental human right, crucial in its own right and also as a cornerstone of democracy, participation and good governance.
“Recognition of this key right is essential to empowering all members of society, including Parliamentarians, to strengthening Parliamentary democracy, to reversing practices of government by the few, and to improving the relationship between Parliament and the media…It is essential that legislation be adopted to give proper effect to this right.”
Not ready for Act
Prime Minister Hinds said that he still felt the legislation was inevitable, but it needed time and preparation.
Regarding the proposed Freedom of Information Bill by Raphael Trotman, Hinds said, “I still think that when one thinks of timing and sequence we may not be there as yet.”
Yesterday, Prime Minister Hinds said that, although the Government is favourably disposed to the Act, should Mr Trotman take it to Parliament at this time it would be defeated, because it is a question of timing. He said that many things needed to be put in place, and these are not yet in place, to allow for such an Act.
Trotman, who is primarily the driving force behind the legislation, tabled a draft of the FOI Act in 2006, but subsequently deferred in order to save it from being thrown out during its first reading.
He later clarified that the move 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. He had indicated his willingness to step aside and allow the Government to take up the initiative.
The Bill proposed by Trotman is based on the Trinidad model, which has been criticized by the Government, saying that it had too many flaws.
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.
Following four days of recent deliberation at Guyana Workshop on Parliament and the Media, where the FOI Act was discussed in detail, Trotman had 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.
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. He noted that everyone -- not just politicians -- must become involved in the process, and consensus must be arrived at.

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