By KHRISNA RUSSELL
Tribune Chief Reporter
ORGANISATION for Responsible Governance has renewed calls for full implementation of the Freedom of Information Act, insisting all available resources be committed to its enactment.
This week, a senior government official suggested to The Tribune the legislation had not advanced due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which limited government operations.
When contacted for his views, Matt Aubry, ORG’s executive director, told The Tribune it was imperative the legislation advanced as the government has shown it can prioritise when needed.
Section 47 of the Freedom of Information Act 2017 (FOIA), which outlines protections for whistleblowers, was brought into force in 2018.
The previous Ingraham administration passed a FOIA shortly before the 2012 general election, however there was no date for enactment. The last Christie administration then overhauled the legislation, and conducted an extensive public consultation process.
The Christie administration passed a FOIA in Parliament in February 2018. However, aside from the whistleblower’s protection, only part one and sections of part five and eight of the legislation have been enacted, allowing for the appointment of an information commissioner and repealing the 2012 FOIA.
“In the context of statements that there has been a pandemic going on it is 100 hundred percent understood that that capacity to work on this has been limited,” Mr Aubry told The Tribune in a recent interview.
“At the same time, we have found as a country a priority to move forward with issues related to regulations that move us off of EU and FATF black and grey lists. The NPO Act (Non-profit Organisations Act) moved forward and they are now in the process of pushing forward with the commercial substance reporting legislation, both of which again put lots of emphasis on transparency and reporting but not necessarily for an internal purpose but external purpose.
“So, this then becomes even more important that this is an opportunity for not for profits and Bahamian businesses have had to stretch in a time that is challenging for them to complete these obligations.
“The government should also prioritise the full enactment of freedom of information.”
He also said: “If the logic is that the Emergency Powers are necessary in order to keep the kind of focus and direction going forward then there needs to be a check and balance and freedom of information is a key one of those. That again I think drives all of what we are doing.
“This is absolutely a priority and needs to be pressed for in many ways. The funding is there, the identification of an information commissioner is something they’ve been working on for the better part of the year if not longer. It needs to advance.”
ORG communications coordinator Chauntez Dillet-Wilson added that to fully enact FOIA would help restore citizens’ trust in government and the way it handles affairs.
Given that the government has set its sights on restoring the economy and rebuilding after Hurricane Dorian, there is no better time than now for the full legislation to come into play, she said.
She said: “It is a matter of ultimate urgency. Even before all of this was happening, we felt that it was a crucial part of increasing transparency within our nation. Something that not just us, but when you speak to the Bahamian people feel it’s very much lacking.
“The insinuations in regard to the pandemic, it (FOIA) actually gained a lot more importance in times like this. If you look at international expertise with regards to this in times when you’re consolidating power, in times of crisis, transparency is more important than ever. Something like freedom of information and all anti-corruption regime legislations is actually crucially important to ensure that our resources are being managed well in times where you see a lot of emergency spending. That level of accountability is more important than ever. The people aren’t trusting the government to spend our money correctly or use our resources correctly.
“While we are in no way suggesting that they are not transparent, but transparency ensures that it appears to be being managed well and it is beyond doubt and reproach.
“At the end of the day we understand the position the government is in; we think there are some crucial steps that they can still make.”
She also raised concern about the government’s failure to appoint an information commissioner as is outlined in FOIA 2017.
“I also want to say if I’m not mistaken the main reason that a piece of legislation would be halted at the time of emergency is lack of focus and lack of funding and I know that resources have been a strain for the government because of a lack of revenue,” she said. “But, the two biggest expenses for freedom of information would be a digitisation, which I am under the impression they are moving forward with because that’s being funded by the IDB and then the information commissioner.
“The budget for that has already been put in a previous budget. As a matter of fact, we have been promised to have an information commissioner before Dorian ever hit and as far as we know one has not been selected or at least not publicly announced.
“Honestly once you have that person in place a lot of the balls can start rolling.”