Time ripe for a Freedom of information Act Editor
Stabroek News
November 26, 2001

One of the attributes of a government that is irrevocably committed to good governance is a complete willingness to be forthcoming with information and to be accountable to its citizenry. To optimally achieve this requires a Freedom of Information Act or as Jamaica has recently rechristened it, an Access to Information Act. It is an indispensable tool that allows all stakeholders in society to gather critical information they may need for their own use while at the same time opening up the functioning and activities of the government to critical review. Transparent governance then becomes accountable governance.

The need for an act of this kind here has been raised before in these columns. As more and more of our Caribbean counterparts activate theirs, its absence here will begin to raise uncomfortable questions about the government's commitment to openness. Such openness should not be confused with, for instance, the availability of ministers of the government to speak with the media. Generally, many of the ministers in the Jagdeo administration are accessible to the media on request - some are not. In addition, it was recently announced by the government that two ministers will hold press conferences each week, a third will be open to questioning on Sundays and Dr Luncheon will continue to brief the public on Cabinet decisions. President Jagdeo also holds press conferences regularly. This, however, is only a small component of the information machinery. At these press conferences, the subject ministers are completely in control. If they desire not to provide the information they can say so bluntly and uncompromisingly. Nothing can stop this. A Freedom of Information act on the other hand statutorily enshrines access to a broad range of information whether or not the subject minister is inclined to release it.

This is the direction that Jamaica is now headed in. A process that began as far back as 1991 - our government is yet to embark on this journey - is expected to culminate shortly in an Access to Information Act. At a recent Media Association of Jamaica/Gleaner seminar in Kingston, immediate past information minister and the prime mover behind the act Maxine Henry-Wilson stressed the importance that Kingston places on the approval and activation of the law. Essentially, citizens and non-citizens can apply to all public authorities on a prescribed form for access to official documents. There are, of course, areas that are exempted including security and international relations, cabinet papers, law enforcement and documents affecting the national economy, personal privacy or subject to legal privilege. Each application has to be responded to within 30 days by the respective authority either providing the information sought or explaining the refusal. If the applicant is not satisfied he/she can appeal for an internal review of the decision by the permanent secretary. If not appeased by this review, an appeal tribunal could hear the matter and ultimately the applicant can seek recourse to the courts.

Once the Act is assented to it will apply to documents - including electronic records - in existence seven years prior. In the run up to the passage of the law, Henry-Wilson said all public authorities are inventorising and classifying the documents within their purview with the help of the Jamaica Archives Department and there have been consequential amendments to the Archives Act and the Official Secrets Act. True to the culture of public service secrecy where even the most innocuous information is jealously guarded, Henry-Wilson said some ministries have not responded the way they should have and the Cabinet Secretary had been instructed to ensure that they comply fully. Press officers have been appointed in each ministry and to drive home the seriousness of the government's intent, permanent secretaries have been briefed and told that the act was not a low profile matter. Funds would be set aside from the Treasury for the operation of the act and a public information campaign would precede its coming into force. As Henry-Wilson said, the act "is something whose time has come" so that the average citizen can glean what goes into decisions made by the government.

There are many areas here where this open access to information can help Guyanese to learn about how its government operates and whether it is accountable. There are frequent questions about state contracts and how they are awarded. This is one area the Jamaican Act will fully open up to the public. The expenditure of public monies, awarding of house lots and decisions on what projects should be funded are other areas ripe for scrutiny here.

There are already several perceived weaknesses in the Jamaican Act - too many exempted areas, the ease with which more exempted areas can be added, the cost burden for the applicant and ambiguity over the appeals process. It is however a major start and only after it has been put into operation can the Act be critically assessed and amended.

The Jagdeo administration should test these waters. It speaks frequently about open and transparent government. It therefore should have nothing to fear from providing its citizens with a potent tool for full disclosure. The culture of secrecy and information control is alive and well here in the form of the Public Corporations Act, the public service rules and the general disdain for the public right to know. It is time that this begins to change.