THE Government must immediately put a halt to its unseemly rush to amend the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and to rush it through Parliament without any consultation whatsoever with the public.
The proposed amendments undermine the intent of the FOIA and tilts the balance of power against the public and in favour of State power.
It is a dangerous development to both press freedom and the public’s right to know.
Especially worrying is the stealth with which the Government brought this amendment. The offending measures are contained in Clause 7 of a piece of legislation titled “The Miscellaneous Provisions (Tax Amnesty, Pensions, Freedom of Information, National Insurance, Central Bank and Non-Profit Organisations) Bill, 2019.”
Specifically, Clause 7 triples the length of time, from 30 days to 90 days, which is allowed to Government entities to provide information on requests filed by the public under the Freedom of Information Act.
As if this were not bad enough, the time allowance magically expands to 180 days in cases where the Government entity intends to deny the applicant the information being requested.
The additional 90 days is to seek the approval of the denial from the Attorney General who the Government now intends to insert into the process as a kind of information gatekeeper.
The amendment is due for debate in the House of Representatives tomorrow where it would appear that the intention is for summary passage via a simple majority. If it does get to the point of debate it would be interesting to see how the Government intends to spin this retrograde piece of legislation as something serving the public interest.
Hopefully, it will not get to that point. Whatever the Government’s calculation in deciding to insert Clause 7 into the unwieldly-titled miscellaneous bill, one would hope that by now it has recognised its error in so doing and pre-emptively moves to correct the omission of ignoring public opinion in contemplating amendments to the FOIA. In a Government that is becoming notorious for disrespecting the public consultation process and for the over-centralisation of information in an already inefficient and inadequate process, this move represents a dangerous assault on the public’s right to know and takes Trinidad and Tobago back to the bad old days of authoritarian government when public officials believed that information in the State’s possession belonged to them.
The passage of the Freedom of Information Act in 1999 was the high point of a historic public rebellion against State control of information which should properly be classified as public information.
The Act very pointedly states its objective of “creating a general right of access to information in documentary form in the possession of public authorities limited only by exceptions and exemptions necessary for the protection of essential public interests and the private and business affairs of persons in respect of whom information is collected and held by public authorities”. Any amendment to this very important piece of legislation should be aimed at enhancing this right and not thwarting it, which is exactly what will happen if Clause 7 is allowed to pass into law. Withdraw it now and consult.