Express journalist Denyse Renne has served her profession and the country well in having successfully sought legal redress against Police Commissioner Gary Griffith’s refusal to provide information requested under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
Justice Ronnie Boodoosingh’s ruling in favour of Ms Renne should stand as a reminder to everyone, including media houses, journalists, businesses, civil society organisations and the average citizen, about the rights and power available to them under the FOIA.
Twenty years after the FOIA became law, far too many public officials and agencies continue to exercise arbitrary control over the information in their possession. The idea of the public’s right to all information held by public bodies, apart from categories defined under the law, is still to take root in a culture that remains centralised and authoritarian.
Any national Police Service operating on the basis of transparency, accountability and the principle of the public’s right to know would have had no problem with supplying Ms Renne with the information she was seeking. Indeed it would understand the value of the public being kept informed about its hiring practices, salary payments, contract awards, consultancies, granting of firearms users’ licences, and so on.
While we understand the historical reasons for the unwillingness of State bodies and other publicly-funded institutions to share information, 20 years is a long enough time for them to have come to terms with the idea of the public’s entitlement to information about how the offices funded by them are managed and operated. As a media house serving the public’s right to know, our journalists regularly come up against a pervasive unwillingness by publicly-funded bodies to share information to which anyone is entitled under the FOIA. The entire Government apparatus is still largely cloaked in secrecy based on an unreasonable, illogical fear that putting information into the public’s hands will somehow threaten something. We recognise this as the legacy of a culture steeped in the autocratic view that power is not answerable to people.
Trinidad and Tobago should have passed that stage since gaining its Independence 58 years ago, but did not. For almost four decades, governments kept a tight lid on information that should properly have been made available to anyone who asked. Growing public impatience over the lack of access to such information is what ultimately led the Panday government to fulfil a campaign pledge to enact the FOIA.
As Ms Renne and others have found, despite the FOIA’s existence, many public entities covered by it are inclined to obstructionist responses to requests for information. Too often, individuals have to seek redress in the court for information to which they are wrongfully denied access. The worrying point is that while the legal costs incurred by public institutions are covered by taxpayers, an individual’s cost is invariably covered out of their own pockets. In the case of Ms Renne, legal costs are covered by her employer.
Justice Boodoosingh’s judgment should be a lesson to all public managers of the need to operate within the law of the FOIA in handling requests for information. As importantly, Ms Renne’s success should inspire the public to ensure that they do.