Ramesh threatens public campaign to stop FOIA amendment

Contending that democracy is now under threat, former Attorney General Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj has threatened to mount a public campaign to stop the government from amending the Freedom of Information Act without public consultation.

During a press conference at his office in San Fernando, Maharaj said the proposed amendments were not in the public interest and will hinder people from accessing the Act to get government-held information.

The press conference took place simultaneously while the government debated the Miscellaneous Provisions (Tax, Amnesty, Pensions, Freedom of Information, National Insurance, Central Bank and Non-Profit Organisations ) Bill 2019 was being debated in Parliament with the aim of amending Sections 15, 21 and 22 of the Freedom of Information Act.

Saying "information was the oxygen of democracy," Maharaj said such amendments were dangerous to democracy and will seek to deny the public and the press the right to hold the government accountable.

Under the existing Freedom of Information Act of 1999 Section 15, the Court can compel the government to release government records. 

"Section 15 of the Act imposes a 30-day limit for the public authority to notify the applicant if a request is denied. However, under the proposed amendment, Maharaj says a person will now have to wait six months to find out whether their request for information was denied or not," Maharaj said.

"If this amendment is made law there would be unreasonable delays and an unnecessary level of bureaucracy to obtain information under the Act. It would hinder, frustrate and obstruct people who wish to get government-held information," Maharaj added.

He also said an amendment to Section 21 and 22 will give the Attorney General control over the release of information, "a power which he should not have."

"The effect of the Attorney General having the final say on proposed decisions of a public authority to refuse to supply information would result in public authorities automatically refusing requests," Maharaj noted.

He also said if a person's request is refused, anyone can apply to the High Court for Judicial Review to get information but if the Act is amended the delays in accessing information will result in expiration of statutory periods.

Saying he was convinced that amending the Act which he piloted in Parliament would lead to an "untenable state of affairs" Maharaj said, "I feel strongly about this piece of legislation and I have decided that if the government intends to pursue this and makes it law that I will not only file legal proceedings in order to challenge it but I will also mount a public campaign against the government to show how undemocratic these amendments are." 

He warned, "I will put public pressure on the government to repeal any Act which it passes in respect to these amendments." 

Maharaj added, "I do not want the government to believe I am threatening it with any litigation but what I am saying is I will inform the public about what is going on because it affects the democracy of our country. Information is the oxygen of democracy. If people do not have the information they cannot consider their affairs properly. They cannot assess opposition or assess political life. They need the information to address issues in the country."

He called on the government to hold public consultation adding that the Bill should have a three-fifths majority before it could be passed.

- by Radhica De Silva