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Guyana Assembly Passes Access to Information Bill

last modified Sep 20, 2011 12:00 AM

Source: Freedominfo.org

Date: 20 September 2011

The Guyana National Assembly Sept. 15 passed an access to information bill drafted in meetings boycotted by the opposition and being criticized by transparency activists.

President Bharrat Jagdeo is expected to sign the bill in the coming months, according to an Associated Press report.

Prime Minister Samuel Hinds told the Assembly that 20 of the 50 clauses were amended by a select committee, according to a report by Kwesi Isles in Demerara Waves. “There were no major changes in principle, purpose or intent; the amendments made mainly were of the sort to clarify what was intended and to remove ambiguities and maybe some typos and layout issues,” Hinds was quoted as saying.

Opposition participation in the committee was limited to the AFC’s Raphael Trotman, according to the Demerara Waves report which stated: “The opposition parties have objected to meetings being held during the parliamentary recess which runs from August to October and have also boycotted the sittings.  Government had said the meetings were necessary to get outstanding business cleared before the dissolution of parliament later this month.”

In the run-up to passage, the bill was criticized by the Guyana Bar Association (see below).

The bill provides for access to information subject to a regimes of exemptions and the appointment of a commissioner of information, according to a description in a Government Information News Agency (GINA) release, which also says the bill “seeks to set out a practical regime of right to information for persons to secure access to information under the control of public authorities in order to promote transparency and accountability in the working of the government and public authorities and for the appointment of the Commissioner of Information. Any public official found guilty of destroying public documents could face as much as a year in jail.

Prime Minister Samuel Hinds said information not available on websites will be made available on request. The long-awaited bill was proposed in June. (See previous FreedomInfo.org report.)

The GINA release also states:

With regards to contention as to why the bill is not applicable to the president, the prime minister explained that the president as a private person is excluded; however, the Office of the President as a statutory body is still answerable to the public and is therefore not exempted from the provisions set out in this piece of legislation.

Part Six, Clauses 34-50 of the Bill speaks to a number of important issues, key among these will enable members of the public to correct inaccurate personal information while another seeks to protect the media, in that it will not be required to disclose any source of information.

“When this Act is brought into being, there would still be lots of work required to make it effective, systems will have to be established and coordinated all across the government and public agencies for consistent way in filing, detailing and retrieval of documents,” the prime minister said.

PPP/C Member of Parliament, Gail Teixeira, who also spoke on the Bill, said that it adds another layer of the governance architecture for Guyana in terms of human rights and democratic institutions and is for the benefit of all citizens.

“This Bill is taken from a number of pieces of similar legislation from places such as Canada, United States of America, India, Jamaica, Belize and Trinidad and Tobago… it is an attempt to take what is best from the various pieces of legislation and incorporate what is applicable to Guyana,” she said.

She made reference to a similar Bill which was dated 2006 but wasn’t published until November 2010 and was tabled by Raphael Trotman from the Alliance for Change (AFC), and said that it is a duplicate of Trinidad and Tobago’s Freedom of Information Act.

“We believe that this Bill is a good-faith effort, we have no doubt that over time as we develop and emerge as a country and our capacities improve, this Bill will be amended but for now it is a good effort for Guyana,” Teixeira said.

At the select committee, the Bill benefitted from deliberations between the government and opposition, until August 10 after which the opposition was represented by only one member, AFC’s Trotman.

The select committee met on 12 occasions and saw nine written submissions, three of which were followed up with oral presentations. The Bill has 50 clauses, 30 were unaltered and 20 of which were altered at the select committee. These amendments, the prime minister said, were mainly to clarify what was intended, to remove ambiguities and to correct typographical and layout issues.

Bar Association Critical

The Guyana Bar Association Secretary Christopher Ram questioned why the bill does not provide for freedom of information officers in each ministry or government department rather than one Commissioner of Information (COI) appointed and answerable only to the president. He spoke Sept. 3 at a seminar held by the Transparency Institute (Guyana) Inc.

He reasoned that individual officers would allow aggrieved applicants for information to seek redress from the COI rather than having one “information czar,” according to an article in Demerara Waves.

“Under the system recommended by our Bar Association, the role of the Commissioner, if one must still remain, must be elevated to an oversight function,” said Ram, adding that the appointment should be reviewed or recommended by the 65-seat National Assembly. The commissioner should be more independent, he said, according to the newspaper account. The report continued:

But Presidential Advisor on Governance, Gail Teixeira explained that the decision to have only a COI was aimed at reducing the response time particularly in cases where requests are forwarded to the wrong government agency from people in far-flung coastal and hinterland areas.

“One of the criticisms of all the FOI bills that do not have a Commissioner of Information is that people spend undue time trying to find which is the right agency to make the request to,” she said in her argument in favour of a central clearing house with catalogues.

Ram also urged stronger protection or whistlebowers. Teixeira stated that help is expected from the Follow-up Mechanism for the Implementation of the Inter-American Convention against Corruption (MESICIC) in the Organisation of American States (OAS). “All the Caribbean countries have asked for assistance in drafting whistleblower legislation. The OAS has done a kind of model which the countries have still asked for technical support to write whistleblower legislation,” she said.

Ram also “flayed government for not fully reflecting freedom to receive and impart information provisions in Guyana’s Constitution and the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights,” according to the article.

Demerara Waves credited outside pressure for passage of the law, stating:

The law will be enacted several months after several Western Nations intensified calls at the United Nations for Guyana to do so. Representatives of the American, British, Canadian and European diplomatic missions attended the TIG-organised event. Britain has helped to provide some seed-financing for the organisation, likely to become the second Caricom member-state to have a chapter of Transparency International.