Gov’t proposes key exemptions under Freedom of Info bill

Many government documents are exempted from disclosure under the Freedom of Information (FOI) Bill tabled by the administration in the National Assembly last week.

The Bill will be examined by a Special Select Commit-tee after Minister of Home Affairs, Clement Rohee who tabled the Bill in the absence of Prime Minister Samuel Hinds, asked for it to be sent to the special select committee.

Clement Rohee

The Bill provides for the right to information under the control of public authorities, in order to promote transparency and accountability in the working of the government and public authorities and for the appointment of the Commissioner of Information (CI).

The President is exempted from the Act but the functions of the Office of the President are not. Also exempted is a Commission of Inquiry issued by the President or information obtained or created in the course of an investigation, examination or audit conducted by or under the authority of the Auditor General, unless the investigation or audit and all related proceedings, if any, are finally concluded.

Exempted too is a public authority or function of a public authority as the President may, by order subject to negative resolution of the National Assembly, determine.

Meanwhile, Section 27 (1) of the Bill says that a document is an exempt document if it is the official record of any deliberation or decision of Cabinet; if it is a document that has been prepared by a Minister of Government or on his behalf or by a public authority for the purpose of submission for consideration by Cabinet or a document which has been considered by Cabinet and which is related to issues that are or have been before cabinet; or if it is a document prepared for the purpose of briefing a minister of government in relation to issues to be considered by Cabinet.

A document that is a copy or draft of, or contains extracts from, a document referred to above is exempt as well as a document the disclosure of which would involve the disclosure of any deliberation or decision of Cabinet, other than a document by which a decision of Cabinet was officially published.

The Bill says that Subsection (1) shall cease to apply to a document brought into existence on or after the commencement of this Act when a period of 20 years has elapsed since the last day of the year in which the document came into existence. It also says that Subsection (1) does not apply to a document that contains purely statistical, technical or scientific material which may be an appendage to a Cabinet document unless the disclosure of the document would involve the disclosure of any deliberation or decision of Cabinet.

The Secretary of Cabinet can certify that a document is exempted once it is one of a kind referred to in Subsection (1).

Also exempted are documents in which disclosure would disclose matter in the nature of public opinion, advice or recommendation prepared by a public officer, adviser, consultant or Minister of Government, or consultation or deliberation that has taken place between officers, Ministers of government or an officer and a minister of government  in the course of, or for the purpose of, the deliberative processes involved in the functions of a public authority; and would be contrary to the public interest.

This will cease to apply after 20 years has passed since the document was brought into existence.

Exempted too are documents that contain information the disclosure of which would be likely to prejudice the defence of Guyana or an state allied or associated with Guyana; if the document could reasonably be expected to be injurious to the detection, prevention or suppression of subversive or hostile activities in Guyana; or if the document would be contrary to public interest for a reason mentioned in this section or would be likely to prejudice the lawful activities of the disciplined forces. A minister can decide whether a document is exempt.

Also exempt are international relations documents, law enforcement documents, documents subject to legal professional privilege, documents relating to trade secrets, documents affecting the economy, commercial affairs, the operations of a public authority and documents to which secrecy provisions apply.

The Bill says that a document is an exempt document if its disclosure under the Act would divulge any information or matter communicated in confidence by or on behalf of a persons or a government to a public authority and the information would be exempt information if it were generated by a public authority or the disclosure of the information under the Act would be contrary to the public interest by reason that the disclosure would be reasonably likely to impair the ability of a public authority to obtain similar information in the future. This section does not apply to information acquired by a public authority from a business, commercial or financial undertaking that relates to trade secrets or other matters of a business, commercial nature.

Despite a document being exempt, the Commissioner of Information shall give access to the document where there is reasonable evidence that where giving access to the document is justified in the public interest, having regard both to any benefit and to any damage that may arise from doing so. In this regard, the Bill lists abuse of authority or neglect in the performance of official duty; injustice to a person; danger to the health or safety of a person or of the public; or unauthorised use of public funds has or is likely to have occurred as other instances where shall give access to an exempt document.

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