We take note of the changes that the Government now intends to make to its proposed amendments to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
While we acknowledge the Attorney General’s belated attempt to take some strand of public opinion into consideration, he has completely missed the point of the most substantial objection to Clause 7 of the Miscellaneous Provisions (Tax Amnesty, Pensions, Freedom of Information, National Insurance, Central Bank and Non-Profit Organisations) Bill, 2019.
The issue is not simply whether the FOIA should be amended to extend time limits and insert the Attorney General as gate-keeper in the FOIA process; it is the process by which the FOIA should be altered in the first place. While claiming to have considered the views expressed by several civil society organisations, AG Faris Al-Rawi clearly did not hear what they were saying, which is that consultation must be a prior condition for any amendment to the FOIA. Instead, AG Al-Rawi is insistently and defiantly pursuing the unilateral path of non-consultation.
The demand for public consultation as a pre-condition for amending the FOIA is the substantial position of this newspaper and One Caribbean Media, the media group to which this newspaper belongs, as well as the Trinidad and Tobago Publishers and Broadcasters Association, the Media Association of Trinidad and Tobago, the Association of Caribbean Media Workers and numerous civil society organisations across a broad range of interests including the environmental sector, rights advocacy groups, the labour movement, the business community, the construction sector, the women’s movement, and education and cultural organisations, among others.
Since we must believe that AG Al-Rawi understands the meaning of the word consultation, we have no choice but to conclude that his persistence in the face of escalating demands for consultation is a deliberate defiance of public opinion in pursuit of the Government’s agenda.
That being said, we give short shrift to his arguments regarding the so-called superior cost-effectiveness of his proposed amendments. We are not interested in the kind of discount democracy being promoted by him. Clearly, he does not grasp the value of the FOIA to a people for whom access to public information was once the sole preserve of those connected to power. The idea of having a piece of legislation that gives everyone equal access to information borders on the sacred for a people starved of that right until the FOIA in 1999. In any case, we challenge his interpretation of the statistics related to public usage of the FOIA as well as his perception of the cost-related problem that he is attempting to fix through Clause 7. Far superior suggestions for improving the functionality of the FOIA have been made by others and are being circulated in conversations throughout the country.
We hold the view that the amendments being offered as solutions by the AG will themselves create more problems, especially the legislative insertion of the AG into the process. This will have the dangerous effect of politicising the public’s access to information. In defence of our democracy, we insist on the withdrawal of Clause 7 and urge the Government to desist from the path of non-consultation.