The Freedom of Information (FOI) bill tabled by the minority opposition AFC has not been discussed by the governing party and the indications are that support for the bill might not be forthcoming in the near future.
Last month the opposition PNCR-1G publicly declared its support for the proposed FOI legislation in principle, but with no definitive response from the PPP/C about whether it would support the bill through its second reading. AFC leader Raphael Trotman said the party was planning to hold a public discussion on the importance of freedom of information laws in the context of Guyana’s socio-political and economic development. This month marks one year since Trotman tabled a Private Member’s Bill on the subject.
In response to a question about whether he had made any contact with the leadership of the PPP/C to canvass support for the bill when it goes to parliament, Trotman said that he had done so by letter dated December 12, 2006, and that PPP General Secretary, Donald Ramotar had said that the party was still to address the issue. Stabroek News understands from reliable PPP sources that the matter of the bill was yet to be discussed at the party’s leadership level. One PPP official said that in addition to the party taking a position, it would also have to find favour with the Office of the President as distinct from the party before the PPP/C could offer its support in parliament.
Yet another PPP official said that compared to the FOI laws found in Canada and the UK the proposed laws for Guyana based on a model from India, were deficient. That official said that the AFC needed to talk to the PPP about its intentions and not lobby for support in the press. The official said that the PPP did not conduct its business in the media. However, Trotman countered that he had sought the PPP/C’s support on the issue and had written Ramotar. A letter he had written months ago indicating his willingness to meet on the matter had gone unanswered.
Trotman had also written to Leader of the Opposition PNCR Robert Corbin seeking his support for the bill, but had not received a reply from him either. However, in early October, the PNCR expressed public support for the bill claiming at the time that the AFC had hijacked it from them, something which Trotman and PNCR Exe-cutive Committee Member Deryck Bernard denied.
As regards how soon he expected to bring the bill back to the house for its second reading Trotman said he did not want to take it back to the National Assembly now and have it defeated without first giving the public an idea of its importance and relevance to the country’s democracy. His intention, therefore, was bring it to the house again in another three to four months, while canvassing support for it in the interim.
Trotman also told SN he hoped that the Guyana Press Association (GPA) could address the issue as well as encourage support for the legislation which was essential for journalists in the execution of their duties. In an invited comment GPA President Denis Chabrol said the association viewed the bill as very important, and supported it in principle. He said he was looking at sourcing funding in collaboration with the Commonwealth Press Association to host a forum for the media as well as to interface with the public and garner their views on freedom of information legislation. He expected this exercise to get underway early next year.
When asked in August why the bill he had tabled in November 2006 had been put on hold, Trotman replied that at the time it had been scheduled to come up for debate, the PPP/C had indicated that their MPs were not going to support it and so he had asked for it to be deferred. He said he had hoped for a response from both political parties by the time parliament resumed in October following its two-month recess, but since there had been no positive response from the PPP/C, there was still more work to be done before the proposed legislation could be debated and find some support on both sides of the house.
He said that both the PPP/C and the PNCR in their campaign manifestos in the run-up to the 2006 general and regional elections had spoken about access to information legislation and freedom of the press, and it was because of their campaign pledges that he had written to both political parties seeking their support for the bill. He said he had also indicated to Prime Minister Samuel Hinds that he was prepared to withdraw the bill if the government found it unpalatable that an opposition member was floating it, and allow the government to put one of its own forward so it would appear to be their initiative.
Before parliament took its recess in August, Trotman had circulated a letter from the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative in India to MPs asking for a conscience vote on the bill as well as support for it. The bill was patterned on India’s Freedom of Information Act.
Trotman laid the bill, for the second time, in Parliament last November after the new parliament was constituted following last year’s general and regional elections. It was first laid by AFC member Khemraj Ramjattan on Trotman’s behalf before parliament was dissolved for elections in 2006. At that time Trotman, a former PNCR MP, had given up his seat in parliament, while Ramjattan had continued to hold his seat after being expelled by the PPP.
The bill seeks to extend the right of members of the public to access information in the possession of public authorities. In particular, it seeks to ensure that the authorisations, policies, rules and practices affecting members of the public in their dealings with public authorities are readily available to persons affected by those authorisations, policies, rules and practices; and it would create a general right of access to information in documentary form in the possession of public authorities. It would be limited only by exceptions and exemptions necessary for the protection of essential public interests and the private and business affairs of persons in respect of whom information is collected and held by public authorities.