The 2011 Access to Information Act should be scrapped or at least amended to reflect a real commitment to transparency and accountability.
This is the view of local group, Transparency Institute Guyana Inc (TIGI).
In a column in Friday’s edition of Stabroek News, TIGI said “Contrary to its name, the Access to Information Act provides protection for information. It appears to be concocted to frustrate citizens seeking publicly useful information by following circular logic and by ultimately setting the avenue for challenging decisions beyond the reach of most citizens. The Access to Information Act should be scrapped and redone or at least amended if it is to reflect commitment to transparency and accountability.”
TIGI noted that Guyana’s Access to Information Act was signed into law on September 27, 2011, and it provides for a Commissioner of Information (CoI) who functions as an intermediary between applicants and the agencies from or about which information is requested.
Under the Act, TIGI pointed out that a Public Authority (PA) is authorised to classify documents into five security categories but only one of these categories is available to the public. TIGI contended that there is no clearly articulated method or content requirement for these classifications leaving this entirely up to the discretion of the PA.
It said that this flexibility to classify and reclassify information is also evident in Trinidad and Tobago where the Freedom of Information Act was used to deny public access to information about the awards of government scholarships. TIGI argued that Guyana’s Access to Information Act institutes a conflict of interest at the PA that “allows it to withhold information at its own discretion and concurrently articulates no consequence for denying a request. The Act also explicitly exempts a document if it would expose the PA to ‘disadvantage’ without defining this term and most interestingly allows nondisclosure of a document due to ‘public interest'”.
Requests for information must first get past the CoI, TIGI said, noting that the CoI may refuse a request if the processing required would “substantially and unreasonably” divert the resources of the PA from its other operations. The CoI may also refuse a request if he/she lacks the resources to do the job.
“Getting past the CoI is essentially a matter of his/her goodwill – something in short supply for TIGI – and the Act again articulates no penalties for this individual”, TIGI said, a reference to the rejection of a request by it for information from the CoI, Charles Ramson Snr.
The only recourse for denial of information under the Act is the High Court and TIGI said that this is costly and will not provide a judgment in a timely manner. TIGI said this is unlike the situation in Trinidad and Tobago (T&T) and Jamaica which have similar Acts but which provide for appeals to an Ombudsman then the High Court (in T&T) or to an Appeals Tribunal (in Jamaica).
Aside from the structure of the Act, questions continue to be raised about the functioning of the CoI, Ramson.
Despite being paid $1.7M per month and not having an office or staff to work
with, Prime Minister Moses Nagamootoo stated that Ramson has not presented any reports to Parliament as statutorily required under the Act.
On December 12, during consideration of the 2017 budget estimates for current and capital expenditures for several agencies under the Office of the Prime Minister,
Nagamootoo was questioned by PPP/C Member of Parliament Juan Edghill about
where the Commissioner of Information is being financed.
“Sir, we were told earlier that the office of the Commissioner of
Information now falls under the office of the Prime Minister,” Edghill said,
requesting that Nagamootoo indicate where the financing for the Commission
of Information is budgeted.
Nagamootoo explained that it is budgeted under the section as ‘other’, which
prompted another question from Edghill, who stated that the allocation to
that line item has since increased from $40M in 2016 to $80M in 2017 and
asked for an itemized breakdown.
Nagamootoo said, “This allocation provides for constitutional
reform, governance and the commissioner of information”. After further
inquiry and questions from Edghill, Nagamootoo explained that the salary,
gratuity and vacation allowance of the Commissioner of Information, Retired
Justice Ramson, stands at $36M per year and $1.7M per month.
However, Nagamootoo went to say, “…And the Commissioner of Information, I
had written him and he had given no report of his work for the last couple
of years of his appointment and I understand he, at the moment, has no staff
and no office.”