A GROUP of civil society organisations (CSOs) and private industry groups is pressing the new administration to highlight the amendment and full enactment of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
In a press release issued yesterday, the group urged the government to look to the timely enactment of FOIA but also to take the opportunity to make revisions that strengthen it.
The groups are a part of a caucus of CSOs and private industry groups representing over 100,000 Bahamians who comprised the central advocacy engine that pressed for amendments to the Freedom of Information Bill, aiming for legislation that better empowered the people and held government officials and departments accountable.
"We appreciate the fact that the present administration has made the FOIA a priority," said Terry Miller, president of Civil Society Bahamas. "Civil society has invested an incredible amount of time advancing the principles of freedom of information and a FOIA that would ensure true transparency and accountability on the part of those to whom we have entrusted the administration of our national affairs. While past administrations have promised, and the former administration passed, an improved version of a bill, today there is an opportunity to make critical amendments that would better uphold the rights of the people and advance the principles of democracy."
The Christie administration passed a FOIA in its last term however the legislation is not fully enacted.
The civil society groups noted that four crucial recommendations to the bill were not incorporated.
"The selection process for the information commissioner in the (act) is politically appointed," the press release noted. "To avoid partisan influence, the group recommends that the position be selected by a committee involving government, opposition, and members of civil society.
"The bill does not provide sufficient access to information about entities that receive substantial public funding, particularly non-statutory bodies. (The CSOs) recommend the definition of 'public authorities' within the bill be expanded to include all bodies 'owned, controlled or substantially financed by the government from public funds' such as the BEST Commission.
"Time limits outlined in the bill favour the government and can act as deterrents for those seeking information. We recommend that wait time for responses and the 30-year period for information to be declassified be shortened.
"Records of government deliberative processes are not included in the (act). Opinions, advice or recommendations ministers of Cabinet or committees therein use to make decisions should be fully disclosed."
Lemarque Campbell, chairman of Citizen's for a Better Bahamas, said: "Though we are led to understand the instruments to appoint the information commissioner are already enacted, we believe that a precedent for a more open and balanced process can be set through the creation of a multi-sector, multi-partisan selection committee. The information commissioner would serve as an arbiter between the people and the government in disputes over information requests. We must avoid even the appearance of bias for this person to be successful in their role."
The group also called on the new administration to see civil society as a resource.
"We think that it is important as the government moves forward on FOIA that they work in tandem with civil society," said Matt Aubry, executive director of The Organisation for Responsible Governance. "Collectively, our groups have conducted a great amount of research, benchmarking, and public consultation on this topic and bring a wealth of knowledge and the people's best interests to the table. Furthermore, as the bill is rolled out post enactment it will be a large undertaking, a great deal of public education will be required and we are natural allies to that effort."