Government and media talk Information Bill

Government and media discuss Information Bill

The Ministry of Communications, Works, Transport and Public Utilities in collaboration with the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), under HIPCAR Project Phase II held consultations on June 16 and 17 to update and modernize the Freedom of Information Bill.  The draft proposed legislation was presented to media stakeholders at the Ministry of Communications and Works conference room for discussion on Monday July 25 and Tuesday July 26 for validation.
Chief Public Utilities Officer, Barrymore Felicien explained that after the validation process, the draft would be presented to the Attorney General’s Chambers.  From there the bill be brought before Parliament and enacted.  Ministry officials could not give a definitive timeline from the current stage of the bill to its enactment.
Former president of the St Lucia Media Workers Association Jerry George applauded the bill because once enacted, documents which are not exempt from the public could be acquired with relative ease.  As it stands currently, the public does not possess legislative power to obtain documents from any government and/or public entity.  It is hoped that through the enactment of this bill, there will be greater transparency within government.
As stated in the draft under Section 5, “(1) The objective of this Act is to extend the right of members of the public to access to information in the possession of public  authorities [in accordance with the principles that such information should be available to the public] by—(a) making available to the public information about the operations of public authorities and, in particular, ensuring that the rules and practices affecting members of the public in their dealings with public authorities are readily available to persons affected by those rules and practices; (b) creating a general right of access to information in documentary form in the possession of public authorities limited only by specific exceptions and exemptions necessary 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; (c) to provide a right of access to information held by private bodies where this is necessary for the exercise or protection of any right or once those entities are clearly providing an essential or permanent public service, subject only to limited and specific exceptions; (d) to provide a framework where the decisions on the disclosure of such information should be reviewed independently of government; (e) subject to limitations outlined in law, authorizing and encouraging the proactive public release of appropriate government information by public authorities.”
Included in the draft is a duty to publish clause which urges government ministries to publish and disseminate key information in the public interest.
Media stakeholders did express concern where online publications are concerned.  As stated in the draft, “Every public authority shall endeavor within a reasonable time and subject to the availability of resources that official documents covered by the provisions of section 8 are computerized and made available through such systems as to facilitate the authorized access to such documents through electronic dissemination channels which may include, but not be limited to, their official website.” The issue arose because “within a reasonable time” is not clearly defined and neither is “subject to the availability of resources.”  Some viewed the wording of the section as a “cop out” by technocrats to undermine the purpose of the legislation.
Under the legislation, each ministry will be assigned an information officer who, through the head of the public authority, reports to the Information Commissioner on a quarterly basis on, among other things, the number of requests processed, those granted, refused or appealed.  The Information Commissioner is appointed by the Governor General after consultations with the Prime Minister, Leader of the Opposition and the Integrity Commission.  A person appointed to this post will serve a seven year term and be paid “a salary equal to the salary of a judge of the High Court and is entitled to be paid reasonable travel and living expenses incurred in the performance of his or her duties.”
After an application is received, the applicant should receive a response in no less than five working days and no more than sixty working days.  Should a public authority not comply with the time stipulation and an applicant not receive a response within sixty working days, then under Section 19 (4) says it is reasonable to assume the applicant’s request has been denied.
There was also a debate on Section 24 of the draft which deals with the refusal of access to documents.  Section 24 states, “A public authority dealing with a request may refuse to grant access to a document if—(a) the public authority is satisfied that the work involved in processing the request would  substantially and unreasonably interfere with the normal operations of the public authority, [and, where the public authority has taken reasonable steps to assist the applicant to reformulate the application so as to avoid causing such interference]; (b) the public authority is satisfied that the document or information within the document to be exempt from disclosure in accordance with this Act; or (c) the public authority is satisfied that the request for information is vexatious.”
The issue lay with Section 24 (c) because vexatious was deemed a subjective judgment call and seemed irrational to include in the section.
There are documents which are exempt from public access.  Jerry George suggested there be a system of checks and balances where exempt information is concerned.  He asked that information follow a standard international check before it be categorized as an exception.
A biting issue arising at the consultation was that according to the legislation, “A public authority may refuse to indicate whether or not it holds a record . . .” Mirror Editor Guy Ellis was pointed out this wording appeared several times in the draft and though he had no problem with not being able to access information, he saw little need for public entities to refuse to confirm or deny the existence of public documents.

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