The announcement by the attorney general on Sunday of the appointments of an information commissioner and a deputy commissioner, and the opening of the Freedom of Information office – though not yet to the public – were important steps in a long quest for more open and accountable government.
But it will likely take a very long time before we experience a culture shift in our government and in the public service, which have traditionally been strongly opposed to providing the media and the wider public access to information they have a legitimate right to have.
The establishment of the Freedom of Information office so close to the end of the term means it is not likely that the benefits of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) will begin to flow freely before the prime minister returns to the people seeking a new mandate.
The statement that the government is finally moving ahead with the full implementation of FOIA – passed just months ahead of the 2017 election – was met with great skepticism with some opining on social media that the move is being made “because election coming” and the Minnis administration needs to be seen to be making important achievements.
Whatever the reason for the timing of the appointments and the establishment of the office, it is a bigger step than has previously been made by any administration on FOIA.
The opening of the office and the presentation of instruments of appointment by the governor general came on World Press Freedom Day on Monday. We do not know if that was purely coincidental, but it is worth noting.
While media in The Bahamas generally enjoy freedoms that some in our fraternity take for granted, we are often stonewalled in our attempts to access information to present deeper and more meaningful reporting.
As we have said repeatedly over the years, FOIA will not suddenly correct sloppy and lazy work that is put out by some from time to time, but it is a move in an important direction.
In a statement on World Press Freedom Day, the Media Institute of the Caribbean observed that there is an urgent need for access to information and freedom of information legislation and improvements to what currently exists.
It noted most countries in our Caribbean region lack this necessary framework that will guarantee information as a public good. During the pandemic period, there has been a marked increase in the number of refusals for information from journalists, the institute added.
It noted the need for better resourced public information systems, a more conducive culture of governance and the presence of strong, meaningful legislation to better facilitate public access to state-held information.
The full enactment of FOIA was a key pledge made by Dr. Hubert Minnis and the Free National Movement (FNM) in opposition.
The commitment was made amid an atmosphere of distrust toward the Christie administration, which had failed to show a genuine commitment to open government.
Many ministers behaved as if the decisions they made were on their own behalf and not decisions made in the interests of the Bahamian people.
Some repeatedly dismissed demands for transparency and accountability. Administrations that conduct important dealings in the dark are often seen as corrupt, and thus it was easy for Minnis and the FNM to play on those perceptions and engender fear that reelecting the Progressive Liberal Party would have endangered our future.
On cue, the FNM in a statement on Monday awakened the bogeymen that helped drive the PLP from office in 2017.
It said, “Our party’s record of transparency stands in stark contrast to that of the PLP. During the PLP’s last term in office, corruption was turned into an art form. The focus of their administration was self-enrichment and covering up scandals.
“The PLP could not account for how it spent VAT revenue or Hurricane Matthew relief funds. Even now in opposition the PLP can’t explain its tangled relationship with the party’s indicted chief benefactor, billionaire Peter Nygard.”
Not unmindful of the criticisms that widely existed about its failure to demonstrate its own commitment to accountability, the FNM was determined not to go into an election without being able to declare that it was the government that finally made FOIA a reality, even if the public does not yet have full access to information under the crucial legislation.
Even when the FOIA regime is established, it will likely be some time before we begin to see the much-needed shift in culture in the public service that must accompany legislation.
In media, we have often been frustrated in our quest to get information from civil servants, many of whom are afraid to speak on matters directly within their areas of responsibility, and who refuse to release that information for public consumption.
Many in senior positions are unreachable or just too afraid of possible repercussions from the political directorate if they speak. In some cases, only the minister is authorized to speak. In many cases, ministers are unaccessible, especially if they are being sought by media individuals they consider not to be friendly toward them.
To be fair, the Minnis administration has made some important legislative moves in the interest of transparency and accountability.
It passed the Fiscal Responsibility Bill, 2018, which is designed to establish guiding principles and rules for accountability and transparency in fiscal management. The legislation makes fiscal reporting a legal obligation.
In March 2021, Parliament passed the Public Procurement Bill, as part of a compendium of financial bills to provide for transparency in the award of government contracts and make government more accountable.
The legislation mandates that government contracts must be published online and in newspapers.
Parliament also passed the Public Finance Management Bill, which seeks to improve transparency and accountability around the management of public finances and in the governance arrangements for public entities, and the Public Debt Management Bill, which seeks to provide a sound modern and comprehensive legal framework for promoting greater clarity, discipline, transparency and accountability in public debt management operations in The Bahamas.
Additionally, Parliament passed the Statistics Bill, which seeks to establish a credible institution, with an advisory oversight mechanism, whose mission and functions will guide the strategy for improving the quality, timeliness and coverage of national statistics, which is vital input to policy decision making.
It is hoped that these pieces of legislation will lead to more accountable and transparent government.
Much more work to do
While we commend the government for making these steps in the right direction, we note that on various issues, it has refused to be accountable – something it could easily do even without the enactment of these various bills.
As examples, the attorney general has refused to report on how much public money was wasted on foreign queen’s counsel pursuing failed corruption cases against former PLP parliamentarians.
The government has refused to make public the lease for its rental of Town Centre Mall to house the General Post Office.
Like its predecessors, it refuses to make public the deal the government of The Bahamas entered into with Bahamas Petroleum Company for oil exploration in our waters.
It has refused to report to the Bahamian people on the status of the so-called missing Oban file and the outcome of Cabinet subcommittee work on what was promised as a new Oban deal.
It has refused to report on the outcome of the probe the prime minister announced in 2018 into the affairs of Bahamas Power and Light.
Should we go on?
While the Minnis administration makes some progress on the transparency front, it is trailing far behind in other respects.
It still refuses to allow for Opposition Day in the House of Assembly. It appears that like the administration before it, it will end this term with numerous questions unanswered on the House agenda.
And while it is not the legal responsibility of the government to gazette public disclosures under the Public Disclosure Act, the former chairman of the Public Disclosure Commission Myles Laroda (who resigned earlier this year to accept a PLP nomination) had repeatedly blamed the executive’s failure to provide the commission with sufficient resources to do its work, as the reason why no disclosures have been gazetted since 2011.
Incredibly, the 2011 disclosures included disclosures only up to 2008. So the public remains in the dark on over a decades’ worth of public disclosures.
Like the full enactment of the Freedom of Information Act, a substantial pledge made by the FNM in opposition was anti-corruption legislation. While the Minnis administration in 2017 tabled the Integrity Commission Bill, intended to repeal the 1976 Public Disclosure Act, it made no further movement on the bill.
With the end of the term nearing, it appears unlikely that that major piece of legislation will receive the parliamentary greenlight anytime soon.