By AVA TURNQUEST
Tribune Chief Reporter
AN international expert yesterday said the delays in the implementation of the Freedom of Information Act were “inexcusable”.
Freedom of Information (FOI) advocate and human rights lawyer Toby Mendel told The Tribune that there was “simply no reason” for the government to stall the process given that they already had a draft document.
He said that while the act passed by the previous government was undesirable, any process to revamp it should have taken less than one year.
“There is simply no reason for the government to be further delaying,” he said when contacted by The Tribune, “they have a draft. We know what the weaknesses are; it’s easy enough to fix them. There are lots and lots of examples around, other countries they can look to. What I would really put to the government is ‘what is your excuse?’ There really is none.”
He added: “If they need to spend a month or two months fixing the problems with this bill because it’s not good enough and we don’t want that one passed, that doesn’t take a long time. It certainly doesn’t take two years or one year.”
Mr Mendel is the executive director and founder of Centre for Law and Democracy (CLD), a Canadian-based human rights non-governmental organisation.
He has more than 15 years of experience specialising in freedom of expression and the right to information, and has provided expertise on these rights to prominent groups like the World Bank and the United Nations.
In a critical review of the act passed in 2012, Mr Mendel said the legislation contained provisions that were “inherently offensive” to the public’s right to know, and gave it a score of 59 per cent in a rating of the law against international best practices. He took issue with the information minister’s ability to provide “absolute” exceptions to information disclosure upon request, and pointed to the wide range of public agencies that were excluded from accountability, such as law enforcement agencies, the Bahamas Investment Authority, the Bahamas Environment Science and Technology (BEST) Commission, and the National Economic Council.
The review was published on the website Digital Disclosure in January.
Yesterday, Mr Mendel said: “Every single one of the weaknesses in their draft has good fixes in lots of other countries.
“It’s about making information available, but also about making it available in proper formal ways.”
He added: “Having a FOIA law will solidify the democratic relationship with information, especially in small places like The Bahamas where rumours can flourish and solid information would do a lot.”
In March, Education Minister Jerome Fitzgerald said that there was “no date in mind” for the revised version of the Freedom of Information bill to be presented to Cabinet.
Mr Fitzgerald, the minister responsible for the legislation, was asked when it would be brought to Cabinet for review. While he could not specifically say when this would happen, he told The Tribune that once all details surrounding the bill have been finalised, Cabinet would discuss the “improved version”.
Last September, Mr Fitzgerald said a revised version of the FOIA would not be presented to Parliament before Spring 2016.
Controversy surrounding the leaked auditor general’s report on the Urban Renewal programme, and revelations that the government withheld an independent report into the 2012 Rubis fuel spill in the Marathon community for more than a year, have renewed calls for the immediate passage of the FOIA.
Yesterday, Save The Bays chairman Fred Smith said: “We cannot afford another month, much less another year of this. We need a FOIA right now. It is by far the single most important legislative item on Parliament’s agenda. The PLP made it a top campaign promise, but since gaining office they have kicked the can repeatedly down the road.
“With the shocking revelations of the last few weeks, we now begin to appreciate why,” Mr Smith said.