Supreme Court Justice Keith Thompson has been appointed information commissioner and former assistant director of legal affairs Shane Miller has been appointed his deputy, as the government seeks to bring the long delayed Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) fully into force.
Describing freedom of information as a “cornerstone of modern democracy”, Attorney General Carl Bethel described the move as proof of the Free National Movement’s (FNM) commitment to accountability and transparency.
“This is an historic day in the life of the people and government of The Bahamas of which I am delighted to be a part,” he said.
“We are excited about the prospects for the Freedom of Information Office and the democratic process which it represents.”
The attorney general said, “This FNM government campaigned on a promise of accountability and transparency and we are committed to fulfilling that promise.”
After a number of delays, he said, the office, located on the top floor of the Yandi Building, University Drive, will open today.
But he noted that it will be another three to six months before the office begins providing services to the public.
“The public is asked to note that although the office will be officially opened tomorrow, it will not be immediately providing service to the public,” he said.
“For the next three to six months, the team will be planning and strategizing for the implementation and rollout of FOIA.”
The Freedom of Information Act, 2012, was passed under the Ingraham administration.
However, the Christie administration determined that extensive changes to the act were necessary. The Freedom of Information Act, 2017, was passed toward the end of the last term.
In the lead-up to the 2017 general election, the FNM, led by Dr. Hubert Minnis, campaigned on a platform of transparency and accountability, promising wide-ranging legislation to stamp out corruption and improve public access to information.
Aside from the whistleblower provision of the Freedom of Information Act, 2017, which came into force in March 2018, there had been little substantive progress on the full implementation of FOIA.
Government officials have attributed some of those delays to Hurricane Dorian and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Bethel said yesterday the government is in the process of hiring a consultant to advise the information commissioner.
“To that end, through the auspices of the [Inter-American Development Bank] IDB and the Department of Transformation and Digitization, the government will be hiring a consultant for a 90-day contract, who will provide the requisite technical advice to the information commissioner on best practices in freedom and access to information,” he said.
“As this is a completely new venture for The Bahamas, we want to ensure that it is done properly.
“Advertisements for a consultant with the requisite expertise were posted both locally and internationally over the past five weeks. I am advised that there were 10 applications. Commencing this week, those applications will be reviewed with the goal of having the consultant hired by 1st July, 2021.
“The consultant will, among other duties: review and provide recommendations for upgrading the current legislative framework; supply recommendations on a road map, strategy and process for the successful implementation of FOIA in The Bahamas; advise on staffing, both in approximate numbers and skill sets needed; give technical guidance and input into the preparation of the content for handbooks and other knowledge products.”
Bethel said the former Eugene Dupuch Law School library will become the dedicated training center for the Freedom of Information Commission.