By RASHAD ROLLE
Tribune Staff Reporter
THE draft legislation for a new Freedom of Information Act will be released to the public by the end of this week and will be followed with town hall meetings where members of the public can comment on the proposed legislation, according to Education Minister Jerome Fitzgerald.
Speaking in the House of Assembly, Mr Fitzgerald said the draft bill would dramatically improve upon the FOIA that the former Ingraham Administration passed in 2012. That law was passed shortly before the May 2012 general election, but was never enforced.
Mr Fitzgerald is the minister responsible for the legislation.
Among other things, the new bill, he said, 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”.
Activists, journalists and concerned citizens have long called for a FOIA to be implemented and have criticised the government for not already passing the legislation.
Reacting to this, Mr Fitzgerald said due diligence was needed to ensure “the new and progressive legislation is properly instituted from the onset”.
“The (FOIA) of 2012,” he said, “was passed in January of 2012 but has not yet been brought into force as it came under attack from civil society as to the number of classes of information which were exempt from disclosure relative to the act.
“Taking into consideration the concerns raised by various members of society and international organisations, an amendment to the act would have been extensive indeed. It was therefore decided to create a new bill. As a result, the (FOIA of 2012) will be replaced by the Freedom of Information Bill 2015.”
A committee of representatives from the Office of the Attorney General, the College of the Bahamas’ law department, the director of archives and the data protection commissioner have met over the past ten months, Mr Fitzgerald said, to examine “provisions of the existing FOIA to determine whether or not it would recommend changes in accordance with other jurisdictions and international best practices.”
In forming the new bill, the committee considered recommendations by two international organisations and used several countries as a benchmark, including Jamaica, Trinidad, Cayman Island, Bermuda, the United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and Ireland.
Ultimately, Mr Fitzgerald said, the new bill will expand “the right of access to information to bodies with a nexus to The Bahamas” and will also “expand the class of accessible documents to include policy documents”.
“This bill seeks to reinforce and give effect to certain fundamental principles underlying the system of constitutional democracy, this is, governmental accountability, transparency and public participation in national decision-making by granting to the public a general right of access to records held by public authorities, subject to exemptions which balance that right against the public interest in exempting from disclosure governmental, commercial or personal information.”