By Mellica McPherson-Ganda
Similar to the pleas of the media, social commentators and members of the public it would appear that even the Governor, who is the Queen’s Representative’s, request for a Freedom of Information (FOI) Act to be implemented in the Territory is falling on deaf ears.
Efforts to enact the critically needed Freedom of Information Bill has been moving at snail speed and His Excellency Governor John Duncan announced that the call needs to continue, despite inaction.
During a press conference at Government House on 19 August the Governor told the media that it needed to push the FOI issue, and explained that he has made the call, but to no avail. However, members of the media were stomped by the Governor’s comment and pointed out that the Governor who sits on Cabinet with the Government was certainly in a better position to influence the furtherance of the critical legislation.
However, His Excellency explained that he simply cannot ask Government to move the legislation to the next level: “It seems we are on the same side…I cannot instruct the Assembly to speed up their work, we are not in the colonial period we have the separation of powers in a modern democratic society,” he stated.
In response to the Governor’s request for the media to ‘clamor for the legislation’ reporters informed the Governor that various articles and pieces were done over the years on the subject with no obvious response on the Government’s part.
“Keep raising it, the population needs to know that this is not moving forward and you and I are the only people who can raise it publicly and we need to keep doing it until it happens…People in positions of authority need to take responsibility,” Governor Duncan instructed reporters.
Nonetheless, His Excellency mentioned that he is aware of two issues that were explained as the cause of the legislation’s delay: “There are two constraints, first of all one of capacity. These are complicated pieces of legislations so we need to have the capacity within the public service to make sure that the first drafts are properly done…”
“We need to go through a process of looking at what models exist, which is appropriate for us, what’s the experience of other countries who are similar to us and then draft something that is appropriate to our circumstances. That is quite a complicated legal process but it is not insurmountable it would take time,” the Governor added.
“We must inform the United Nations and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, we have a serious problem, our history teaches what people can do,” was the comment of a BV Islander over the weekend.
Premier Vague About Introduction of FOI
In May this year during a One-on-One with the press BVI Leader Premier and Minister for Finance, Dr. the Hon. D. Orlando Smith was asked about Government’s intention to introduce the legislation.
He responded saying: “It is something that we are looking at, and I will be able to provide further information on that at some point later on.”
One of the persons that has been very vocal about the Territory’s need for the Freedom of Information Act is Talk Show Host Douglas Wheatley. During his 3D radio program on 19 August Wheatley announced that it was so heartbreaking for him when he read that a local newspaper had to file a freedom of information request in the United Kingdom in order to get information about a proposed airport expansion in the BVI.
“We have been trying to have a Freedom of Information Act passed in the House now for years and years. Long before the Governor came we have been trying and since the Governor has been here we have been trying and the Ministers the Government would say yes they are going to do it but obviously they don’t want to do it because they don’t want to give the public access to all the information that is available,” Mr. Wheatley added.
TV Talk Show Host Laments Molasses Speed of Bill Introduction
Earlier this year, host of the JTV Speak Your Mind Show, Courtney de Castro made another call for Freedom of Information legislation to be implemented in the Territory. De Castro made the request during his February 6 broadcast.
The local architect lamented the difficulty of obtaining certain information and opined that the legislation will assist greatly: “…some of the information is out there, but as I usually say we don’t have that Freedom of Information Act as yet.”
The Talk Show Host pointed out that there is certain public information that should be made available such as the allocation of funds for various projects. “Those are the kind of things that we expect or we demand that we get on a regular basis; and in some cases prior to the project or activity being done and not after the fact when it is impossible to suggest change.”
“We are hoping and still demanding that we get that Freedom of Information Act. This is something that was promised before and we’ve never seen the light of it and we are still hopeful that we may one day have this thing,” de Castro said.
It was announced in January 2012 that a Freedom of Information Act had been drafted and was awaiting attention from legislators to become law. Information about the legislation was disclosed by Gerard St.C. Farara Q.C, during the annual Frederick Pickering memorial lecture at the Eileen Parsons Auditorium.
Queen’s Counsel Farara announced that the Law Reform Commission drafted and submitted a Freedom of Information legislation to government, in response to the fact that the Territory does not have any such law. He stated that the drafted legislation was submitted to Government for their consideration and tabling before the House of Assembly.
He explained that a Freedom of Information Act is much needed, and is key to enabling members of the public to have access to and become more informed about matters relating to decision-making in Government.
“Such legislation has certain financial and other implications for the Territory when fully implemented. Accordingly, as elsewhere, it may have to be brought into effect piecemeal over a period of time. That having been said, the importance of such legislation to transparency, accountability and generally keeping the public informed about government activities, cannot be ignored. As we have seen, this is most critical to the free flow of information and hence good governance,” Mr. Farara stated.
Complaints Commissioner Advocates for Bill
One of the final efforts of advocacy by former Complaints Commissioner, Mr. Elton Georges was the call for the FOI legislation. During a press conference the day before he retired as the first Complaints Commissioner Mr. Georges called Government to move the Bill forward.
“Freedom of information is an essential part in a modern governmental system, and the BVI should look at the draft Freedom of Information [Bill] which was done from all the way back in 2005, and has just been sitting around,” he announced.
In the Cayman Islands a Freedom of Information Act 2008 was passed the following year. In Barbados a Freedom of Information Act was prepared in 2008 but last June’s “Advocate” headline read “Gov’t still Committed to making the Freedom of Information Act a Reality”. “Not an example to follow in a truly democratic country,” a commentator said.