Freedom of Information, the people’s right to know the factors affecting the decisions and processes of government, is a subset of freedom of speech – a fundamental right. Recognizing that transparency in governance begins with this right, The Organization for Responsible Governance (ORG) collaborated other civil society and private industry groups to advocate for a true, fair Freedom of Information Act. This advocacy resulted in a more open consultation process, the amendment of seven articles within the proposed bill, and ultimately the passage of the bill through both Houses of Parliament.
The Freedom of Information Bill, 2016, tabled in Parliament on 14th December 2016 is the culmination of review and public consultation on its predecessor the draft Freedom of Information Bill 2015 which was released to the public for comment and feedback on 18th May 2015 with the intention of improving upon and replacing the Freedom of Information Act 2012, passed but never enacted in the previous administration.
Since April 2016 ORG and our partners have pressed amendments for the bill to ensure it is a strong, fair bill for the people. With help from members, ORG was a part of a collective effort that saw 22 diverse civil society groups representing more than 100,000 residents come together to act. Through our engagement arm The Campaign For The Bahamas, ORG encouraged over 2,000 citizens to send letters to their MPs and sign our petition and thousands more raised their voices, asked questions, and stood up for the people’s right to know.
ORG compiled and prioritized civil society’s suggestions and lobbied with sympathetic members of parliament to ensure they were debated and considered by The House. Of the over thirty suggestions four priorities emerged to create a bill that gives power to the people and keeps our government honest:
- The selection process for the Information Commissioner in the Bill should be selected through a Selection Committee involving government, opposition, and members of civil society to maintain independence and avoid bias.
- The Bill should provide access to information about all entities that receive substantial public funding. We recommend that the definition of “Public Authorities” which are subject to the Bill be expanded to include all bodies “owned, controlled or substantially financed by the Government from public funds”.
- Time limits outlined in the Bill favor the government and can act as deterrents for those seeking information. We recommend that wait time for responses and the 30-year period for information to be declassified be shortened.
- Opinions, advice or recommendations Ministers of Cabinet or Committees therein use to make decisions should be fully disclosed. The people have a right to know the data and information ministers use to make choices that affect us all.
Our partner, Citizens for a Better Bahamas (CBB) created a detailed assessment document bench-marking these recommended amendments in other Westminster systems. Ultimately all of the priority points were debated and considered. However, when the bill was passed in Parliament and later in Senate in February 2017 the priority amendments were not included, though seven other civil society’s amendments were included in the final bill.
ORG and our 21 partners now lead the collective call for the timely enactment and enforcement of the bill. Once the bill becomes an Act, ORG’s work continues in renewing the push for the inclusion of the four priority amendments during the Act’s 18 month review phase and beginning a public education campaign to ensure that persons of all walks of life are made aware of their right to public information and taught how to access and use this tool to better their lives and the country.