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'Questions Unanswered Over Information Bill'

By PACO NUNEZ Tribune News Editor THE revised version of the Freedom of Information Bill leaves many questions still unanswered, opposition MP Ryan Pinder said. Speaking during the second House of Assembly debate on the Bill following amendments by the Senate, Mr Pinder said lawmakers must ensure the legislation delivers on its intended purpose once passed. This Bill aims to facilitate access to information held by the government and its agencies and other designated entities, subject to certain exceptions. The Elizabeth MP questioned a number of the Bill's components, among them the "public interest" exemption. He said: "What is in the public interest is not defined in the legislation, but is to be defined by the minister in the regulations. "In my opinion, the public interest exemption should be defined in the legislation, demonstrating more objectivity. "By allowing it in the domain of the minister, it allows for politically motivated disclosure and definition of what is in the public interest." Mr Pinder also said it is important to provide protection for whistleblowers who inform officials of improprieties. He said: "This legislation in my opinion does not go far enough in its protections, it just provides for the legal protection for whistleblowers. "The legislation should set forth penalties and outline the protection mechanisms. This is of particular importance in a country such as the Bahamas, with a small population, where everyone seems to either be related, or know everyone else. A well defined and structured protection regime is necessarily in the legislation." The changes made to the Bill by the Senate include: * the Act will come into force on a date to be appointed by the minister, instead of July 1, 2012. * only Bahamian citizens and residents will have the right of access. * the Information Commissioner will now be the Data Protection Commissioner. * the Official Secrets Act will override the Freedom Of Information Act. On this last point, Mr Pinder said: "The Official Secrets Act gives a broad prohibition, it implies that government information can only be disclosed to authorised persons or persons where it is in the state's interest to make disclosure to such persons. "There is a question as to what "official documents" include. What is the scope of information that the Official Secrets Act covers? "The FOI Bill 2012 effectively removes information covered by the Official Secrets Act from the ambit of the FOI Bill altogether; does the clause merely preserve the status quo? This reconciliation, or lack thereof, makes it unclear exactly what will and will not be produced under this legislation."

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