Transparency Institute wants Access to Information laws scrapped

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…legislation designed to conceal, provides no guarantees—Dr Troy Thomas

Transparency International Guyana Institute (TIGI) has called on Government to immediately scrap, or at the very least, amend the Access to Information law, saying the legislation in its current construct is designed to stymie access to information, at the level of the Office of the Commissioner of Information.

Dr Troy Thomas
Dr Troy Thomas

This was divulged by Dr Troy Thomas of TIGI, who on Sunday, appeared with Chartered Accountant and anti-corruption advocate, Christopher Ram, on the weekly televised programme “Plain Talk”.

The men were at the time discussing the sore issue of transparency, accountability and corruption in Guyana, when Dr Thomas used the occasion to lament the state of affairs with regard to the Access to Information legislation on the books in Guyana.

According to Dr Thomas, the current law not only allows for the Commissioner of Information to unilaterally deny access to information on the grounds of a lack of resources within that entity, but to downright conceal requested information.

Ram, in response to the lamentations of the TIGI representative, recalled that during the initial passage of the Access to Information legislation, that entity had in fact put forward a number of recommendations to the then People’s Progressive Party/Civic (PPP/C) Administration to no avail and questioned whether it would not be useful to again submit the proposal to the current coalition A Partnership for National Unity/Alliance For Change (APNU/AFC) Government.

Dr Thomas was quick to point out that the depth of flaws in the current legislation would warrant the complete scrapping of the existing law.

Flawed law

He suggested that in its current construct the legislation was more geared towards concealing information rather than making the requested information public.
“What we have is so flawed… Where do you start amending that?” questioned Dr Thomas.
He suggested that looking to access information utilising the legislation would see persons jumping through hoops from the time a request is made.

Dr Thomas has in fact suggested that the only guarantee under the existing legislation was the right to apply to access the information, but there was not even a guarantee of an acknowledgment of receipt of the request. “There is no guarantee of a response.”
Citing an example, Dr Thomas noted that TIGI had in fact applied to the Office of the Commissioner of Information to obtain a copy of the parking meter contract that has generated significant public rancour and debate, but to no avail, since, not even an acknowledgement was forthcoming from Commissioner Ramson.

According to Dr Thomas, when receiving an application for access to any bit of information, the Office of the Commissioner of Information would first need to assess whether the information can in fact be provided and whether that body would have the resources available to accommodate the request.

Media

Citing another instance where the legislation stymied access to critical information, Dr Thomas pointed to the fact that the legislation required where the requested information could disrupt the functioning of an organisation, access  could be denied or the organisation would have a chance to categorise what could be released.

Dr Thomas opined that in such a scenario, the information would in fact be useless since it would be heavily redacted.

Asked about a recourse to the courts to remedy the situation, Dr Thomas noted that while the existing legislation did make provisions for persons to approach the Supreme Court, how many persons would want to jump though the additional hoops associated with this recourse.

Ram – himself a longstanding anti-corruption advocate and vocal activist on matters related to transparency and accountability –  used the opportunity to chastise not only TIGI for not taking up the mantle and approaching the courts if only to set precedence, but the local media corps, since they would have been at the forefront clamouring for the Access to Information legislation.

“I think the media should take it to court,” Ram said, while in the same breath not absolving TIGI.

He reminded the TIGI representative that it was a civil society representative body that has been accredited to monitor and act in such matters and for that body to not act would be tantamount to shirking its responsibilities.

Depressing

According to Ram, TIGI is sitting on a number of recommendations and proposals with regard to amending the Access to Information law and the option was available to approach Government or the political Opposition in order to see the amendments being tabled in Parliament for possible approval.Commenting on the recent public spat between the Commissioner of Information and Prime Minister Moses Nagamootoo, Ram called the entire sordid affair “pretty depressing”.

This matter of the lack of resources has since seen the Commissioner of Information, Charles Ramson Senior taking Government to court seeking compensation for the use of his personal facilities to undertake his obligations under that office.

Lamenting the state of affairs, the duo said, on one hand, it would be expected that the Commissioner of Information would be provided with basic resources and he should not have to resort to suing the Government; at the same time, they questioned how it was after 20 months, Prime Minister Nagamootoo was clueless as to what obtained at the Office of the Commissioner of Information and its occupant.

It was pointed out that the legislation provides for the Commissioner of Information to refuse access to requested information on the grounds of a lack of resources and the very outfit is presently being starved of resources. (Guyana Times)

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