No Date for Freedom of Information Act
SaveThe Bays, the fast-growing environmental movement, has expressed “disbelief and shock” following headlines in a recent Nassau daily revealing that the government has no date in mind for implementation of what was expected to be a revised freedom of information act.
“Freedom of information is the very bedrock of a democracy,” said Joseph Darville, Save The Bays Education Director. “It formalizes the people’s right to know what the government they elected is doing on their behalf, what deals they have signed, what contracts they are issuing, what developments are being approved, how they are spending our money.
“It is all about transparency and the news that the Minister of Education says the government has no date in mind for the introduction of what is supposed to be a revised freedom of information bill, was shocking and disappointing. We are stunned by the disregard and casual dismissal of all the efforts of so many thousands of people from every walk of life urging the introduction, enactment and implementation of something as basic to democracy as freedom of information.”
Similar concerns were echoed by Democratic National Alliance leader (DNA), Branville McCartney who declared that the government’s inability to act on Freedom of Information sends a strong negative message that it “DOES NOT WANT TO BE ACCOUNTABLE!”
“The only real way to ensure that rights of ALL BAHAMIANS are protected is to ensure that the transactions of those elected to lead are not concealed from the public,” McCartney said in a press release last week. “Freedom of Information is without question the first MAJOR step to ensuring that the systemic corruption that has plagued government agencies is reversed.”
The Bahamas Press Club also weighed in on the importance of the Act, saying that the issue has been unresolved for far too long. “We do not believe that it should take another two years to do that,” said the local group. “…freedom of information and a free press are critical to the preservation and deepening of our democracy.”
Save The Bays organized two rallies last year to call attention to the need for a freedom of information legislation. The first held in June drew a crowd of religious leaders, government workers, representatives of political parties, unions, the Bahamas Chamber of Commerce and other business and civic organizations to a massive peaceful demonstration in Rawson Square. The downpour that at times forced participants to seek cover under tents did little to dampen spirits and caught the attention of scores of tourists passing by from the public square near the cruise ship dock who paused to listen to speeches by the head of the FNM, the DNA and other prominent Bahamian organizations and churches. Several visitors said they were shocked that in a free country like The Bahamas, there was no freedom of information. In the end, many from abroad added their signatures to a petition calling on government to remedy the situation.
That petition now has nearly 7,000 signatures and is expected to be presented to government before the next budget is passed.
“This is the very same government that in 2012 shortly before the last national election criticized the FNM for failing to enact a freedom of information act. A currently sitting MP rose in the House of Assembly and delivered a moving and provocative speech declaring the people have a right to know,” said Save The Bays Chairman Fred Smith. “We had a right to know then and we have a right to know now. This is not something that is going to go away. How many callers who phone in to various talk radio shows are asking for freedom of information? It’s a daily mantra. We just hope the government is listening to the pleas of people who only want what is rightfully theirs, the right to know.”
The FNM did introduce a freedom of information bill shortly before the last election but it was never enacted. When the PLP was swept into office in May, 2012, it said the bill had so many flaws that it would be harder to re-draft than re-write.
“Nearly three years have passed while we awaited the re-writing of this bill,” Smith continued. “A lot has been accomplished in three years, but clearly freedom of information was not a top priority and we trust that through the continued pressure from so many persons in the community the Christie Administration will recognize how widespread the cry for the right to know has become.”
Proponents of freedom of information have repeatedly suggested that The Bahamas review and take the best from similar legislation in other countries, noting this is one of the last remaining nations not to have some type of freedom of information act. More than 100 countries including the U.S., England, China, Uganda, Nigeria and Jamaica have existing legislation and a platform for handling requests. When legislation is enacted in The Bahamas, responsibility for compliance with handling requests will rest with the Ministry of Education that maintains the official Archives and it was the words of the current Minister of Education Jerome Fitzgerald that sparked the “stunned” and “in shock and disbelief” comments from Save The Bays. According to the news story, Fitzgerald told Tribune staff reporter Ricardo Wells that while he now knows the monetary costs of implementing such an act, he has “no date in mind” for introducing it and plans to discuss with his colleagues before any further information is available to the public.
Freedom of information is one of several tenets Save The Bays is calling for. Among the others are an environmental protection act, an end to unregulated development, and accountability for the oil leakage and pollution at Clifton Bay. In less than two years, it has fought and won several costly legal battles, created a youth environmental ambassadors program in Grand Bahama that is so popular that has nearly doubled in size, produced an information-oriented radio show and maintained a steady stream of community and public relations efforts calling attention to the need to preserve and protect critical marine and land resources. Updated information on the organisation’s activities is available on its website, www.savethebays.bs and on its Facebook page which has drawn more than 17,200 likes.