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Freedom of Information Bill a major step forward

The Free National Movement lived up to one of its key legislative promises last Wednesday when it tabled a Freedom of Information Bill in the House of Assembly.

Under the proposed act, information is considered anything contained in maps, plans, graphs, drawings, photographs, and on any other device on which data can be recorded.

Anyone, for a “reasonable” fee, would be able to ask for any public information without giving a reason, and public institutions would be required to respond to applications for information within 30 days of receiving the request. The FOIA also allows for appeals to an information commissioner, who would be appointed by the governor general.

Similar to other FOIAs, exemptions include information relating to strategic or operational intelligence of the country’s security forces, records that would prejudice the security, defense or international relations of The Bahamas, judicial functions of a court or holder of a judicial office, and any record that involves “unreasonable disclosure” of personal information, among others.

We commend the government for starting to follow through with the pledge it made in 2007.  It’s about time.  The government has proposed that the legislation, once passed, will not be enforced until July 1, 2012.

The move marks a very important step toward greater democratic governance, and brings The Bahamas closer in line with many other countries in the region and around the world that have already implemented freedom of information laws.

Such laws are critical for journalists and the general public because they allow us to see what our leaders are doing on our behalf and they make powerful government officials more accountable.

Freedom of information has been recognized as a foundational human right ever since the United Nations General Assembly declared in 1946 that, “Freedom of Information is a fundamental human right and a touchstone of all freedoms to which the United Nations is consecrated”.

Since then, the Organization of American States and the Commonwealth — The Bahamas being a member of both — have also endorsed minimum standards on the right to information.

A FOI law has the potential to promote greater transparency and accountability and also greater public participation in the government’s decision-making process.

Empowering citizens with the legal right to access information regarding their government’s activities can strengthen democracy by making the government directly accountable to its citizens on a day-to-day basis rather than just at election time.

As we have said in this space before, legislation to provide more freedom or access to information is not an end in itself.

An outdated public service culture run by civil servants who would often prefer root canal surgery rather than press scrutiny will not quickly become more transparent because of the passage of a bill.

Moreover, a media culture that is often sloppy and lazy in its coverage of government and political affairs will also not suddenly become more enterprising.

Still, such legislation is a means to various ends.  It is a part of a framework of legislative tools that can help to promote a more accountable and transparent public service culture.

The debate on, enactment of and training in the details of such legislation may help spur politicians, civil servants and journalists to provide citizens with the information needed to make freer and more informed decisions.

Outlawing discrimination does not end prejudice.  But it puts that prejudice on notice that discrimination is against the law.

Legislation to ensure greater public access to information will not in itself ensure a more open public service culture.  But it puts that culture on notice that such openness is an essential component in good and effective governance.

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