Key stakeholders worried about FOIA amendments

For­mer Joint Con­sul­ta­tive Coun­cil (JCC) pres­i­dent Afra Ray­mond is ques­tion­ing why, in all the dis­cus­sions sur­round­ing amend­ments to the Free­dom of In­for­ma­tion Act (FOIA), noth­ing is be­ing said about the long­stand­ing breach of Sec­tion 40 of the Act which calls for da­ta about the Act it­self to be pub­lished an­nu­al­ly. That da­ta was last tabled in Par­lia­ment in 2008/2009 and made pub­lic in 2010.

Ray­mond has suc­cess­ful­ly used the FOIA to get in­for­ma­tion on the abort­ed San­dals project, as well as the In­vaders Bay project

Speak­ing on CNC3's The Morn­ing Brew this morn­ing, Ray­mond said there seemed to a "cosy con­sen­sus" be­tween Gov­ern­ment and the Op­po­si­tion when it comes to pub­lish­ing da­ta per­tain­ing to the FOIA.

"The law is in breach at this time," he said. "The PP (Peo­ple's Part­ner­ship) gov­ern­ment was quite com­fort­able and hap­py to leave those Sec­tion 40 re­ports un­pub­lished and the cur­rent ad­min­is­tra­tion is as well. We have some­thing called a cosy con­sen­sus in the coun­try and one of the things we have a con­sen­sus around is this is­sue on how the FOIA works, which is Sec­tion 40."

Ray­mond said when the Peo­ple's Na­tion­al Move­ment (PNM) was in Op­po­si­tion they said noth­ing about the breached Sec­tion 40. Now the Op­po­si­tion Unit­ed Na­tion­al Con­gress (UNC) is say­ing noth­ing about the lack of pub­lished in­for­ma­tion re­gard­ing the de­tails of the FOIA.

"Be­cause they are un­con­cerned about true trans­paren­cy and ac­count­abil­i­ty. Let us all un­der­stand how that sys­tem works and op­er­ates," Ray­mond said.

He was al­so crit­i­cal of the pro­posed amend­ments, which he de­scribed as ret­ro­grade and warned would "push our rights to in­for­ma­tion back in­to the Dark Ages."

"Once again we ap­pear to be com­mit­ted to de­ci­sion mak­ing on in­stinct, fact-based de­ci­sion is ab­sent. Sec­tion 40 of the FOIA ac­tu­al­ly con­tains an oblig­a­tion for the Min­is­ter re­spon­si­ble for the FOIA—in this case the Min­is­ter of Com­mu­ni­ca­tion—it con­tains an oblig­a­tion for the min­is­ter to pub­lish an an­nu­al re­port on the op­er­a­tion of the FOIA," he said.

"We have no facts on the num­ber of ap­pli­ca­tions, num­ber of re­fusals, num­ber of ap­peals. We don't know the le­gal fees that the state has spent."

"The very ar­gu­ment that be­cause some­thing is com­mer­cial, some­thing is fi­nan­cial, it is nat­u­ral­ly con­fi­den­tial and can­not be re­vealed, which is what was used by San­dals," he said.

Ray­mond said it would not be ac­cept­able for the At­tor­ney Gen­er­al to just give a blan­ket fig­ure.

"There is a statu­to­ry pro­vi­sion that is in breach at this mo­ment in time. The first thing the AG needs to do, if he is talk­ing about the ef­fi­cient op­er­a­tion of pub­lic re­sources—and those re­sources in­clude law­ful au­thor­i­ty—why has the Sec­tion 40 re­port not been pub­lished?" he asked.

Ray­mond said he "al­ways sus­pect­ed that AG want­ed to di­lute" the FOIA.

"If you wish to change the Act, this is a democ­ra­cy, this is a Re­pub­lic. Would you please con­sult with us, the users, the stake­hold­ers and the cit­i­zens as to what are the changes that will, in fact, for­ti­fy the FOIA," he said.

Op­po­si­tion Mem­ber of Par­lia­ment Dr Roodal Mooni­lal is al­so ques­tion­ing why changes to the FOIA are nec­es­sary.

He said: "On Fri­day when this mat­ter came to us, a Bill was laid in Par­lia­ment and with ob­scene haste, the Bill was laid and the Gov­ern­ment said it would be de­bat­ed on Mon­day. If the amend­ment as word­ed is al­lowed to car­ry, you would have no Free­dom of In­for­ma­tion Act. The case is ob­scene.

"The agen­cies in the me­dia that have been able to get in­for­ma­tion that is crit­i­cal of the Gov­ern­ment need to ex­pose cor­rup­tion and pro­tect your fun­da­men­tal rights," he said.

Mooni­lal said he is con­fi­dent that AG will come with fig­ures but he want­ed to know how this de­lay in the pro­vi­sion of in­for­ma­tion would re­duce costs.

"To­day is a dark day, if the Gov­ern­ment gets away with it," Mooni­lal said.

He of EquiGov In­sti­tute Rishi Ma­haraj is al­so speak­ing out on the is­sue. Ma­haraj and Ray­mond are ex­pect­ed to par­tic­i­pate in a longer dis­course on Sat­ur­day to dis­sem­i­nate in­for­ma­tion about Gov­ern­ment's pro­posed changes to the FOIA. For­mer at­tor­ney gen­er­al Ramesh Lawrence Ma­haraj, who con­cep­tu­alised the orig­i­nal FOIA, is ex­pect­ed to par­tic­i­pate in that dis­cus­sion.

"While I ap­plaud what the AG is at­tempt­ing to do with re­gards to cost-sav­ing mea­sures and try­ing to make pub­lic bod­ies more ac­count­able and re­spon­si­ble, I think the ap­proach needs to be dis­cussed," Ma­haraj said.

Ma­haraj was at­tached to the Free­dom of In­for­ma­tion Unit from 2005 to 2012. In fact, it was Ma­haraj who pub­lished the last FOIA re­port un­der Sec­tion 40.

"The last an­nu­al re­port in 2010, which I would have done be­fore I left the Unit, on av­er­age there were 650 FOIA re­quests which were done every year for pub­lic au­thor­i­ty. Out of those 650 re­quests, al­most 68 per cent are done with­in the 30 days time­line," he said, adding that an­oth­er 75 per cent of those re­quests is grant­ed in full.

"There has not been an an­nu­al re­port laid in Par­lia­ment since 2008/2009, so we don't have any up-to-date fig­ures," he said. "When I was there, what I have seen is that there are a large num­ber of FOIA re­quests that are nor­mal­ly giv­en to the pub­lic."

Ma­haraj said a lit­tle known fact is that a lot of pub­lic of­fi­cers use the FOIA to re­quest in­for­ma­tion from the Pub­lic Ser­vice Com­mis­sion (PSC) for in­for­ma­tion about them­selves.

"I think it is a mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tion and prob­a­bly paint­ing every­body with the same brush in terms of why they want to get in­for­ma­tion from Gov­ern­ment from a po­lit­i­cal point of view," he said.

 - Renuka Singh

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