By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Key clauses in the Freedom of Information Bill need revamping, a non-profit group warning the legislation is vital to correcting “a massive number of serious government ailments”.
The Organisation for Responsible Government (ORG), a newly-formed civil society group, warns in a letter to Tribune Business that the Bill as currently drafted leaves “the fox guarding the hen house” when making information available to the Bahamian public.
In particular, the ORG said the 2015 draft gives the Minister of Information “overwhelming power” to withhold information from Bahamians seeking to discover what the Government is doing on their behalf.
And it also expressed concern that the ‘independent’ information officer is to be selected by the Prime Minister, implying that this person’s first loyalty will likely be to the Government and non-disclosure.
“A strong Freedom of Information Act will have long-reaching implications to the future of our nation, similar to those of the Gender Equality Referendum,” said ORG, which is affiliated with the Bahamas Chamber of Commerce and Employers Confederation (BCCEC) and other civil society groups.
“Freedom of information is the first critical step to the correction of a massive number of serious government ailments that are undermining the stability of the Bahamian government and the Bahamas.
“Both the public perception and/or reality of government corruption, cronyism, nepotism or extortion are significant problems for the socio-economic well-being of the Bahamas, and these ills will only be combated by the enactment of a highly respected and effective Freedom of Information Act.”
ORG aims to provide a platform for other civil society and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to express their views, and co-ordinate their efforts into a more unified advocacy effort.
The group, in its May 6 letter, urged that the Bahamian legislation “ draws from international best practices and relevant benchmarks”.
Suggesting that India might provide a relevant model, ORG added: “There are a number of issues in the 2015 Proposed Bill which should draw the concern of the Bahamian public.
“For example, the 2015 draft gives the minister of information overwhelming power to withhold information from the public, as well as stipulates that the ‘independent’ information officer be selected by the Prime Minister.
“In ORG’s opinion, and that of our experts, this is most assuredly a case of the fox guarding the hen house and is unacceptable.”
ORG added that for the Freedom of Information Bill to be properly drafted and function correctly, the Government needed to reform the consultation process.
It argued that “the irony is that there seems to be no transparency surrounding the very act that is to provide government transparency”.
Jerome Fitzgerald, minister of education, promised the House of Assembly last week that there would be greater public consultation over the next six weeks, with the legislation and associated information published on his Ministry’s website.
However, ORG said the Ministry’s website contained neither the draft Bill nor a schedule of the upcoming meetings. As for the e-mail address and phone number where Bahamians had been invited to submit questions and feedback, it had been unable to gain a reply to three submissions, while phone calls went to a generic voice mail.
“ORG implores the Ministry of Education and the Attorney General’s Office to ensure that the necessary revised draft Freedom of Information legislation is provided to the public in advance of a suitable number of scheduled public education and consultation town hall meetings, to be held around the country,” the group added.
“However, it is impossible for there to be any meaningful civil society consultation without the issuance of the revised Freedom of Information draft or some reference material.
“There must be sufficient time for any number of civil society organisations to digest the revisions, and properly compare and contrast the draft against other highly respected Freedom of Information Acts and then to formulate a meaningful response to the Government.
“Once Bahamians make their concerns known, the Government must abide by the public’s stated wishes and demonstrate a commitment to transparency and the rule of law, both cornerstones of good governance.”
ORG said the level of social media chatter on a Freedom of Information Bill among Bahamians over the past six months was at odds with the attendance at prior town meetings, with those in Nassau attracting just 15 and four persons, respectively.
“The Freedom of Information Act’s success is highly dependent on an independent information officer and regulatory body free of government influence (except on matters of national security), and freedom of the press and free speech free of political victimisation or government reprisal.”