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'Make Freedom Of Information A Priority'

AS the government prepares to reconvene Parliament this week, the Organisation for Responsible Governance (ORG), a not-for-profit civic foundation aimed at fostering better governance, has urges the Cabinet to prioritise enacting the Freedom of Information Bill.

The legislation was passed in Parliament in the previous administration but has not yet been fully enacted. The group implored government for the timely enactment of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) but also to take this opportunity to consider revisions that would strengthen the law.

“Prioritising the urgent roll-out of the FOIA would be a demonstration of nonpartisan commitment to the people and the development of the nation,” said ORG communications coordinator Chauntez Dillet-Wilson. “We and a myriad of our civil society partners have worked tirelessly and are prepared to continue to advocate for the enactment of a true, and fair bill that gives power to the people and keeps the government honest. We have seen FOIA fall to the wayside before in 2012 and don’t wish to repeat it. Years of comprehensive research and consultation have gone into the bill and civil society’s recommendations, it is up to this administration to seize this opportunity.”

The group stressed that FOIA is a foundational step to more open, transparent, and fair governance and a first step toward combatting corruption.

“In its first few months, this administration has gone to great pains to demonstrate a commitment to combatting corruption. However, they must go above and beyond handcuffs. Systemic change is required to develop the culture of transparency and accountability that has been shown to discourage and reduce acts of malfeasance in public life,” said Matt Aubry, executive director of ORG.

“FOIA is a derivative of freedom of speech – a fundamental right – and is a crucial step to creating that culture of trust and transparency. FOIA has been evidenced to improve public awareness of laws, regulations, policies, and procedures; enhance government efficiency and responsiveness; increase public participation in government affairs; boost public confidence, and empower citizens to hold their officials and representatives accountable. Ultimately it is shifting power to the people, which is at the heart of democracy.”

ORG is one of a group of civil society organisations (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. The group aimed to ensure that the bill empowered the people and held government officials and departments accountable.

The coalition was successful in having seven of its amendments included in the final bill draft, which passed both houses of Parliament in February of this year. However, the group states that three crucial recommendations to the bill were not incorporated and urge that these be considered in any renewed FOIA effort.

The bill does not provide sufficient access to information about entities that receive substantial public funding, particularly non-statutory bodies. They 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.

The group also said 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,” ORG noted.

“Records of government deliberative processes are not included in the bill. Opinions, advice or recommendations ministers of Cabinet or committees therein use to make decisions should be fully disclosed.

“According to public statements by the former Minister of Education Jerome Fitzgerald, the legislation has been partially enacted, allowing for the appointment of the information commissioner and the repeal of the 2012 FOIA. ORG pledged to continue to support FOIA efforts and called on the new administration to see civil society as a resource and ally,” the group’s statement noted.

“We think that it is important as the government moves forward on FOIA that they work in tandem with civil society,” said Mr Aubry. “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. 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 prepared to assist in this effort.”

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