Kamla on FOIA: Amendments obscene, no support from Opposition

A mass ap­peal by at least 30 pri­vate bod­ies, in­clud­ing the Law As­so­ci­a­tion of T&T (LATT) is try­ing to force the Gov­ern­ment to with­draw the Clause 7 amend­ment to the Free­dom of In­for­ma­tion Act (FOIA).

The LATT, in a me­dia re­lease yes­ter­day, said it sup­port­ed the call for pub­lic con­sul­ta­tion on the pro­posed amend­ments to the FOIA.

"The FOIA has be­come a cor­ner­stone in civ­il so­ci­ety’s ef­fort to hold pub­lic au­thor­i­ties to ac­count.

Any such sub­stan­tive changes ought to be con­sid­ered af­ter the views of key stake­hold­ers are

wide­ly can­vassed and thor­ough­ly ven­ti­lat­ed," the LATT said.

"The LATT there­fore calls up­on the Ho­n­ourable At­tor­ney Gen­er­al to post­pose (sic) de­bate on the

Mis­cel­la­neous Pro­vi­sions (Tax Amnesty, Pen­sions, Free­dom of In­for­ma­tion, Na­tion­al

In­sur­ance, Cen­tral Bank and Non-Prof­it Or­gan­i­sa­tions (NPO) Bill, 2019 and put it out for pub­lic

com­ment," the LATT said.

Par­lia­ment is ex­pect­ed to de­bate to­day on the Mis­cel­la­neous Pro­vi­sions (Tax Amnesty, Pen­sions, Free­dom of In­for­ma­tion, Na­tion­al In­sur­ance, Cen­tral Bank and Non-Prof­it Or­gan­i­sa­tions (NPO) Bill, 2019, which seeks to amend the Free­dom of In­for­ma­tion Act to ex­tend the pe­ri­od with­in which a pub­lic au­thor­i­ty is re­quired to in­form an ap­pli­cant of its de­ci­sion in re­la­tion to a re­quest for in­for­ma­tion. This pe­ri­od would be ex­tend­ed from 30 to 90 days.

A pub­lic au­thor­i­ty would, how­ev­er, be re­quired to ob­tain the ap­proval of the At­tor­ney Gen­er­al be­fore re­fus­ing a re­quest.

In a joint re­lease, sev­er­al oth­er bod­ies added their con­cern about the pro­posed amend­ment.

"We are firm­ly of the view that the pub­lic con­sul­ta­tion is es­sen­tial to any change to the FRee­dom of In­for­ma­tion Act and es­pe­cial­ly as per­tains to Clause 7," the groups says.

"We are of the view that such far-reach­ing al­ter­ations to the Free­dom of In­for­ma­tion Act should not pro­ceed with­out full pub­lic dis­cus­sion and con­sul­ta­tion," the amal­ga­ma­tion of pub­lic and civ­il bod­ies said.

AG: Will raise it with col­leagues

At­tor­ney Gen­er­al Faris Al-Rawi yes­ter­day said he had seen the joint re­lease from the groups. And while the pub­lic pres­sure may not trig­ger any change of the planned de­bate, the At­tor­ney Gen­er­al promised to talk with his col­leagues to­day about the con­cerns.

"I will speak with my col­leagues to­mor­row (to­day) on these de­vel­op­ments," he said.

"There is an ob­vi­ous need to pro­vide facts which will demon­strate the pro­pri­ety of the pro­posed amend­ments-which are de­signed to im­prove the sit­u­a­tion and save tax­pay­ers dol­lars," he said.

"All that is be­ing pro­posed is an ex­ten­sion of the time to deal with the ini­tial FOIA and the AG to con­sid­er any pro­posed de­nial of any FOIA re­quest in the event that a pub­lic body in­tends to refuse the re­quest," he said.

Al-Rawi said that the amend­ments would "pre­serve all rights whist sav­ing mil­lions of dol­lars in costs that could have been avoid­ed".

Op­po­si­tion leader: Amend­ments ob­scene, no sup­port from Op­po­si­tion.

Op­po­si­tion leader Kam­la Per­sad-Biss­esar said the Op­po­si­tion will voice its own dis­sent of the amend­ments dur­ing the de­bate to­day. She de­scribed the amend­ments as "ob­scene" and said the Op­po­si­tion will not sup­port it de­spite the fact that the Bill needs a sim­ple ma­jor­i­ty to pass.

"It is a dic­ta­to­r­i­al, despot­ic and des­per­ate ac­tion by the Gov­ern­ment to cur­tail in­for­ma­tion first­ly by ex­tend­ing the time-frame to 180 days," she said.

Per­sad-Bisses­sar said she re­viewed the laws of 125 coun­tries with FOIA's and found none that had the same amend­ments that the Gov­ern­ment was propos­ing.

"Not a sin­gle one of them has a time frame of 90 days for re­ply," she said.

She said the ad­di­tion­al pro­pos­al of an­oth­er 90 days meant that a per­son could wait 180 days for a de­nied FOIA re­quest.

"I have seen nowhere else in the world, 125 coun­tries, they all have with­in a month, with­in 20, 30 35 days," Per­sad-Bisses­sar said.

"It is to­tal­ly out of this world," she said.

She said the sim­ple ma­jor­i­ty to pass such a Bill was "fright­en­ing".

"Of course the ar­gu­ments would be done in Par­lia­ment with re­spect to that," she said.

Per­sad-Bisses­sar said the crux of the Gov­ern­ment's ar­gu­ment was that the FOIA rights were not en­trenched in the Con­sti­tu­tion but was an hon­orary statute.

"There are ar­gu­ments that that right is an ad­junct, a sub-di­vi­sion of the right to Free­dom of Opin­ion and Free­dom of Ex­pres­sion. There are views in that re­gard," she said.

"The sec­ond thing that is out of this world is the in­ser­tion of the At­tor­ney Gen­er­al as the gate-keep­er," she said

"I have again looked at the 125 coun­tries with FOIA's, there is not a sin­gle coun­try in the world that has an AG in­sert­ed in this man­ner to give ap­proval be­fore a de­ci­sion is made," Per­sad-Bisses­sar said.

The Op­po­si­tion leader said that the in­ser­tion of the AG in the FOIA breach­es the sep­a­ra­tion of pow­ers.

Per­sad-Bisses­sar said if some­one sends an FOIA re­quest to the Par­lia­ment,the AG would have fi­nal say on what that pub­lic body's re­sponse.

"Par­lia­ment has to send it to the At­tor­ney Gen­er­al. That can­not hap­pen," she said.

"It is to­tal­ly ab­hor­rent to a democ­ra­cy and a par­tic­i­pa­to­ry democ­ra­cy," Per­sad-Bisses­sar said.

- Renuka Singh

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