The public must demand freedom of information sooner rather than later

The Nassau Guardian
Published: May 19, 2014

The governing Progressive Liberal Party (PLP), it seems, is not satisfied with the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) passed by the former Ingraham administration.
Instead of bringing it into force as scheduled, the government announced that it would withdraw the legislation and bring a stronger version to Parliament for debate.
The statement that the FOIA brought forward by the Free National Movement (FNM) was too weak is a fair one. The bill was filled with restrictions, exemptions and executive vetoes.
It created an independent information commissioner, only to undermine his position by vesting ultimate control in the Cabinet minister responsible for government information, who in essence would be able to block any information from being released without having to explain why.
But this was only to be expected. Governments have always held tight control over as much information as they could, understanding that knowledge is indeed power.
Only in the last half century or so – and only because of heightened global demand for transparent government – have politicians reluctantly surrendered some of their control.
Even the most liberal FOIA in existence restricts access far beyond what is strictly necessary for national security purposes and the protection of privacy rights.
In addition, The Bahamas has over the years developed a particularly strong culture of secrecy, in which confusion and evasion are recognized tools of the political game. Clearly, no FOIA bill brought by a party in this country would be on the cutting edge of the concept of transparent government.
But for all its limitations, the FNM’s bill still represented a considerable step forward for The Bahamas. It upheld the public’s right to know, as a fundamental principle, protected whistleblowers from repercussions and meted out substantial penalties to any public servant found to obstruct a freedom of information request.
With the PLP’s decision to withdraw it, that step forward has been withdrawn – for the time being at least. Bahamians would be unwise to assume that the government will be in a hurry to retrace it, given the reluctance of politicians generally to grant freedom of information to the public.
Concerned citizens who want to see this become a more open and transparent society must now step forward and insist that a FOIA be brought to Parliament sooner rather than later.
We cannot rely in this regard on any group of politicians, as they could potentially have more to lose than anyone else under such a law.

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