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 "The PP (People's Partnership) government was quite comfortable and happy to leave those Section 40 reports unpublished and the current administration is as well.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