By RASHAD ROLLE
Tribune Staff Reporter
THE draft Freedom of Information Bill does not eliminate the flaws inherent in previous legislation passed by the former Ingraham administration, an expert on right to information laws has said.
Canadian Toby Mendel, executive director of the Centre for Law and Democracy (CLD), wrote a letter last month to Jerome Fitzgerald, the minister responsible for the legislation, in which he expressed concerns about the draft legislation’s weaknesses. His organisation ranked the draft bill 38th out the 102 countries that have such legislation.
The letter, which has been obtained by The Tribune, was sent a week after the government released a draft of a new Freedom of Information (FOI) Bill to the public. Mr Fitzgerald said during a recent Parliament session that the Bill dramatically improves upon the Ingraham administration’s 2012 version of the law, saying it will “narrow the class of documents that are exempt from disclosure,” recommend “for a standalone whistle-blowing legislation” and call for a “review of the Official States Secrets Act.”
In his letter, Mr Mendel notes that the CLD uses a right to know (RTI) rating to assess the strength of such laws. This rating is formed after analysing whether RTI laws meet global standards with regard to ways that include requesting procedures, appeals processes, and exemptions.
According to Mr Mendel, the CLD has concluded in its assessment that the 2012 bill deserves 88 points, putting it in 48th place worldwide. Meanwhile, the 2015 version of the FOI bill scores 93 points, putting it at 38th place compared to the other 102 countries that have RTI legislation.
“This is far below Caribbean countries Antigua and Barbuda and the Cayman Islands which score, respectively, 113 and 112 on the RTI rating,” he said.
“Although the new bill has some modest improvements over the 2012 (FOIA), the main problems have not been addressed and it still fails to meet international standards in many respects,” he said, adding: “CLD welcomes the improvements in the 2015 bill, such as rules suggesting harm is required before an exception is engaged and removing the power of the minister to issue certificates effectively rendering information secret. “However, the 2015 bill is also weaker in some respects, including by adding new and problematical exceptions and by giving the minister the power to exclude additional bodies from the ambit of the law. Full consultation and debate prior to enacting a right to information law is appropriate, given its democratic importance and complexity. “However, there has been ample time for debate on this issue in the Bahamas and it is now time to move forward decisively to adopt a law, albeit a law which respects international and constitutional standards in this area. The weaknesses of the 2012 bill are now well-known and the same is now true of the 2015 bill.”
Mr Mendel, who has consulted with the United Nations, the World Bank and other multi-lateral agencies on freedom of information legislation, has pledged the centre’s support to the government in passing an effective FOIA.
The former administration passed a FOIA in 2012 but the law was never enacted. When the Christie administration assumed office, the government said the law needed to be overhauled or scrapped for a new one.