The political parties should adopt the Access to Information Bill quickly

Dear Editor,

On June 17, the Government of Guyana introduced a draft law in Parliament for the purpose of guaranteeing people’s access to information from government bodies and agencies. This is a memorable occasion as it could ultimately lead to greater transparency and accountability for the people of Guyana. The Access to Information Bill 2011 (ATI Bill) must now be deliberated by the House of Assembly before it is passed. The ATI Bill has been referred to a Special Select Committee upon the government’s request for detailed discussion of the provisions.
This Bill has come after several years of efforts made by various political parties. The government led by the People’s Progressive Party/Civic was the first to promise adoption of such a law way back in 1992. However the government failed to deliver despite making various assurances.

The Bill has several positive features. A major plus point is the duty placed on all public authorities to proactively disclose an extensive range of information such as particulars and functions of the organization, a statement of the categories of documents that are maintained, and a statement of procedures to be followed by a person when a request for information is made. The intention of the Bill is to require public authorities to volunteer information rather than wait for them to make specific requests. However, the categories of information requiring voluntary disclosure are fewer than those stipulated in similar access laws in countries like Mexico, India and the United Kingdom. For example, it is not obligatory for public authorities to proactively disclose their budgets and expenditure reports. These reports are crucial for enhancing the transparency and accountability of organizations utilizing public funds.

Another positive aspect of the Bill is the absence of a gateway fee for a requestor. Fees need to be paid at prescribed rates only when access to a document is given in the form of printed or electronic copies. The Bill does not restrict the right of access only to citizens. It is available to any person who is domiciled in Guyana. The Bill could be made more inclusive by defining the term ‘person’ as it is unclear whether it includes legal entities such as companies, corporations, trusts and charities. People in Guyana ought to have the right to seek information on behalf of such organizations as well.

An area currently lacking in the Bill is the inclusion of certain blanket exemptions for entire categories of information such as records of deliberations of Cabinet and their decisions. These documents will be exempt from public scrutiny for 20 long years. Cabinet, being the highest decision-making body in government, must be transparent about its functioning in a reasonable manner. Confidentiality may be required until a decision has been reached; however, once Cabinet has decided on a matter, that decision, along with the reasons and the materials that formed the basis of such decision-making, must be made public.

Also too broad is the exemption granted to the strategic or operational activities of disciplined forces. While it is necessary to withhold certain information in the interest of public security, it would be helpful if the Bill outlined a narrowly drawn set of exemptions subject to strict harm tests. As it stands, the phrase, “strategic or operational activities,” could be stretched to cover vast amounts of information about the disciplined forces. The Bill does, however, provide a substantive public interest override that aims to disclose even exempt information if it is likely to reveal abuse of authority, neglect in the performance of official duty, injustice or danger to the health of a person, or unauthorized use of public funds.

The Bill currently outlines a highly centralized process of seeking information. Applications must be submitted to a Commissioner for Information who is then required to submit that application to the appropriate public authority. While this process is useful in aiding the public by creating a single window for submitting a request, it also has its negatives. By being appointed to this task, the Commissioner becomes the primary decision-maker on granting access to information. He or she has no adjudicatory role unlike in other countries. For example, the multi-member Information Commissions of Mexico, India and Bangladesh adjudicate access disputes where a public authority rejects a request for information. The Guyanese Bill allows for an appeal to the High Court, which is complicated, expensive and long drawn out. The Bill needs amendment to change the role of the Commissioner and make officers within a public authority responsible for making decisions on information requests in the first instance.

Despite these shortcomings, Guyana’s tabling of the ATI Bill is an important step forward; however the clock does not allow enough time for its passage unless there is a consensus amongst all parties over its provisions. With elections to the National Assembly due at the end of August, there is very little time for detailed discussion and adoption.

Other Commonwealth member states such as Belize, Cayman Islands, Jamaica, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Trinidad and Tobago, and Antigua and Barbuda have already passed information access legislation in the Caribbean. Access to government information is within reach for the people of Guyana and it is now up to the political parties to show true commitment to transparency by adopting the Bill quickly.

Yours faithfully,
Chanté Blais
Commonwealth Human Rights
New Delhi

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