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Town hall meeting to address transparency, anti-corruption

While commending the government for several milestones in transparent governance over the past year, such as the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) workshops; the enactment of the whistleblowers provision; and the introduction of the Integrity Commission, Fiscal Responsibility and Ombudsman bills, a consortium of civil society groups is pressing for greater progress and inclusion on these initiatives and is rallying Bahamians together in a town hall meeting to discuss how to create greater transparency and fight corruption in the nation.

The groups are calling for swift, full enactment and implementation of the FOIA, greater public consultation, progress on the Integrity Commission and Ombudsman bills and the development of a whistleblower protection framework, amongst other transparency and anti-corruption reforms.

They invite the public to voice their corruption concerns and learn more on steps toward greater transparency at a town hall meeting to be hosted by the Coalition to Save Clifton on Wednesday, May 30 at 6 p.m. at BCPOU hall.

The town hall meeting will feature remarks from Fred Smith, QC, of Rights Bahamas; Matt Aubry, of the Organization for Responsible Governance (ORG); and a presentation from Citizens for a Better Bahamas (CBB), the local contact for Transparency International, on the results of their 2017 Corruption Barometer research, which measures both perceptions and experiences of corruption in The Bahamas.

“Transparency, openness, accountability, freedom of information – these are the foundations of democracy and the first steps to combating the corruption which undermines our society, threatens our rule of law and erodes trust in political institutions,” said Rev. C. B. Moss, chairman of the Coalition to Save Clifton.

“This is an issue of empowering the people to hold government accountable. It is about our rights.

“We encourage members of the public to attend the town hall meeting on May 30 to hear and be heard on this crucial issue.

“We, as a people, have a responsibility to ensure the government prioritizes fighting corruption at all levels.”

The participating civil society groups are a part of a caucus of civil society organizations and private industry groups representing over 100,000 Bahamians – the central advocacy engine that pressed for amendments to the Freedom of Information legislation, aiming for legislation that would empower the people and hold government officials and departments accountable.

Now these groups are urging the government to build on this work by enacting the remaining sections of the FOIA, and will be outlining some of their vision for roll-out at the town hall meeting.

“We were happy to see the government’s recent workshops for Freedom of Information,” said ORG Communications Coordinator Chauntez Dillet-Wilson.

“However, we had hoped there would be greater clarity on next steps and a timeline for the full implementation of the act.

“This is the third consecutive government to attempt the FOIA, as previous draft legislation on the same have fallen to the wayside.

“In other jurisdictions internal compliance has taken three years or more, so we urge the government to move swiftly.

“Civil society stands ready to participate in roll-out and public education efforts and asks for more clarity on immediate and mid-term plans for the FOIA.

“In Jamaica, a cross-sector oversight body was created in the implementation stages of their equivalent legislation. This could also be a possible avenue for The Bahamas.”

The groups suggested quick action on the selection of the information commissioner, who would direct the implementation of the Freedom of Information Act and rule on matters under the jurisdiction of the act. “The sections in the FOIA for the appointment of an information commissioner are already enacted, and we hope to see progress on this crucial first step soon,” said Matt Aubry, executive director of ORG.

“The appointment process for the information commissioner has been a key concern for us, and at the recent FOIA workshop we saw that this concern was shared by many other groups.

“The success of the FOIA depends upon an independent information commissioner.

“In the draft process a number of civil society groups made a recommendation for the information commissioner to be selected by a committee, comprising of representatives from the government, opposition and civil society.

“Instead, the information commissioner will be appointed by the governor general on the advice of the prime minister after consultation with the leader of the opposition.

“However, there is still opportunity to conduct an inclusive, transparent process, and we hope that the government will be accepting consultation and nominations from civil society and the private sector.”

Worry was also expressed that no visible progress had been made on other anti-corruption and open governance legislation, such as the Integrity Commission and the Ombudsman bills, since late last year.

Citing the recently released Corruption Barometer Survey by Citizens for a Better Bahamas, the groups stated that the state of corruption shows a need for greater enforcement and reporting mechanisms.

“Our survey shows that one in 10 adult Bahamians said that they had paid a bribe within the past year; and overwhelmingly, those who reported an incident of corruption to the authorities, not one respondent said that the authorities took action against the government officials involved,” said Lemarque Campbell, chairman of Citizens for a Better Bahamas.

“A near majority, 44 percent of adult Bahamians, stated that they are afraid of victimization or retribution for reporting corruption; while, 19 percent feel that if they report corruption, nothing will be done about it.

“These results highlight the prevalence of corruption and its continued negative impact on our development, economy, society and, most of all, the everyday Bahamian.

“It demonstrates a crucial need for safe reporting mechanisms, whistleblower protection and investigation and enforcement vehicles.”

The consortium of advocacy groups implored members of the public to get informed and make their voices heard on possible solutions by attending the town hall meeting.

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