TODAY, Mrs Alison Bethel McKenzie arrives in Nassau on her way to Jamaica to represent IPI at the two-day World Press Freedom Day conference, hosted by UNESCO. The conference opens in Jamaica on Saturday and is expected to attract wide media coverage.
Mrs McKenzie, an American-born journalist who is well known in Nassau having been managing editor of The Nassau Guardian for a short period in 2007, is now Executive Director of the International Press Institute (IPI), headquartered in Vienna. She is the first woman to hold this position since IPI’s founding in 1950.
On Friday, we received a call from Vienna. It was IPI’s press freedom adviser for Latin America and the Caribbean, informing us of Mrs McKenzie’s two-day visit and wondering if on such short notice she would be able to meet with the Prime Minister and “other influential members of Parliament” to “discuss press freedom concerns in the Bahamas”.
She also wanted to meet with a “group of journalists representing various publications or news outlets to better assess any pressing issues regarding the free flow of information” in the Bahamas.
How this can be arranged on such short notice — and over a weekend at that — we don’t know. But an effort will be made.
What is of interest is that Jamaica has been selected by UNESCO for the honour of being the host country for this celebration — first observed 12 years ago and on every May 3 thereafter. Jamaica was selected mainly because of its recent passage of the Access to Information Act. This is the equivalent of our Freedom of Information Act, which was tabled in the House of Assembly in October 2011 and passed by the Ingraham government just before it was voted out of office on May 7, 2012.
But there was a hitch. No date was provided for its enactment.
“This Act,” said the Bill, “may be cited as the Freedom of Information Act, 2012.
“This Act shall come into operation on such date as the Minister may appoint by notice published in the Gazette and different dates may be so appointed for different provisions.” At the time it was understood that it would become law by July 1 that year — 2012.
When we told the IPI executive for the Caribbean on Friday that the Bahamas had a Freedom of Information Act on the books, but in effect had no law in operation, she wanted to know what that meant. What it meant, we replied, was that on the statute books there was a law, but it could not come into effect until the Minister gave a date. After two years, the Minister has yet to give a date, and despite the clamour of various organisations, the Bahamas still has no Freedom of Information Act. As a result, Jamaica has been given the privilege of hosting the prestigious UNESCO-sponsored conference and not the Bahamas. Again, through political feet dragging, the Bahamas has missed an important boat.
This is the first time that such a conference has been hosted in the Caribbean. It is expected to attract a number of media personnel from inside and outside the region, including representatives from such international organisations as the Inter-American Press Association (IAPA), Reporters Without Borders, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), the International Press Institute of Southern Africa, and legal, human rights specialists and social scientists.
In August 2012, Prime Minister Christie said that the Freedom of Information Act would be passed “in this term” and an Information Commission would be created. However, he cleverly side-stepped what he meant by “this term”, whether it was to be before the end of that session of the House, or whether it would be before his government’s term ended in 2017.
“You know,” said Mr Christie, “I argue that we were elected to do big things and therefore I am fully aware as the leader of the PLP government that we are going to be judged, not on what we say but on what we do and that from my point of view we are, as a Cabinet, mandated to do things that sort of look at the next 20 to 30 years.”
Was this an excuse for another long delay?
However, the following year – 2013 –we learned from Attorney General Allyson Maynard Gibson that although government wanted to bring the Freedom of Information Act in “as soon as possible”, the law was under review to make certain that the “proper mechanisms” were in “place to support it”. Of course, as usual, there was no further explanation.
And now with another May approaching, the Bahamas still has no Freedom of Information Act.
We suggest that it is with Attorney General Allyson Maynard-Gibson that IPI’s Executive Director should meet to get a better understanding of what should be reported back to Vienna.
Before we went to Port of Spain, Trinidad, in June 2012 to receive a posthumous award being presented by the IPI to Sir Etienne Dupuch, for his and The Tribune’s years of fighting for press freedom, we checked on the status of the Freedom of Information Act. That was the year that IPI had a special eye on the Caribbean because so few of them had such an Act. The Bahamas’ proposed Bill had been tabled, but before we went to Trinidad we wanted to be certain of what we could report about its progress through parliament. We certainly did not want to say that the Bahamas was caught wanting. We were assured that it would be passed before the IPI conference convened. And so it was. We also understood that a date would have been Gazetted for its implementation also before the conference. However, an election intervened — the Ingraham government was out, the Christie government was in and the Freedom of Information Act was left hanging. And there it still hangs.
It was rather embarrassing when we got the call from Vienna on Friday that we had to ’fess up that in 2012 we had given them the wrong information. The Bahamas still had no Freedom of Information Act.
And so it is Jamaica — and not the Bahamas — that will be hosting the world’s media this weekend.
Jamaica, said Jocelyne Josiah, adviser for communications and information at UNESCO, has been playing and will continue to play a leading role in the Caribbean with respect to issues relating to freedom of expression and of the press.
“There have been a number of trailblazing actions in Jamaica,” she said, “particularly with respect to making the media and in particular the new technologies more accessible to people at large, so that they will have a better tool for expressing themselves more freely.”