If we cherish this democracy

If we cherish this democracy

Friday, October 04, 2019

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The Government has wisely decided to withdraw the order resolution it tabled in Parliament earlier this week to extend the period of exemption for Cabinet documents from 20 years to 70 years.

It came to that decision, it said, because “the public debate has gone ahead of the parliamentary process” which was supposedly to convene a joint select committee to incorporate the work already done by a Parliamentary Committee which had completed a review of the Access to Information Act in 2011 but did not advance the work to the stage of preparing a revised law.

The Government also stated that it was always its intention for the joint select committee to “pursue an up-to-date review with new policy considerations to make the Act more robust and comprehensive”.

As such, “the very important issues raised in the public debate” will go straight to the joint select committee for its consideration.

In the meantime, the request for the minutes of Cabinet meetings in 1975-1976 under the Access to Information Act, which is currently before the authorities and which triggered this attempt to extend the period of exemption, will be reconsidered.

Of course, the Government is trying to save face as it has been subjected to fierce backlash from the media, rights groups and civil society organisations over its decision.

In its statement yesterday, the Government said that the Cabinet considered that while 20 years may be sufficient time for most issues to lose currency, there were still cases in which the information released could be:

“1. Against the public interest.

2. A violation of the right to privacy of individuals who are directly or indirectly captured in Cabinet documents and whose information would not normally be the subject of an Access to Information request.

3. A violation of proprietary information which could have a commercial impact.

4. A violation of bilateral or multilateral agreements and understanding within which information was shared by foreign governments or agencies.

5. A breach of national security and the sources and methods of the intelligence networks of the security forces.”

While we accept all that, the Administration cannot justify its 70-year exemption proposal, given that the Access to Information Act already covers a range of scenarios under which documents can be exempted from request.

Instead of trying to slip this extended exemption through the legislature, all the ATI Unit that received the request had to do was point to the relevant provision in the Act.

Rather, the Administration opened itself up to justifiable criticism, as the decision runs counter to the intent of the Act which is to “reinforce and give further effect to certain fundamental principles underlying the system of constitutional democracy, namely governmental accountability, transparency, and public participation in national decision-making”.

Surprisingly, the Opposition was slow to respond to this attempt to extend the exemption period, leaving us to wonder if it had agreed with the proposal, given that the request was for documents during the years when it was in office.

Now that the matter will be going to a joint select committee, we intend to follow the deliberations closely. We urge Jamaicans to do the same, for we are not convinced that extending the period of exemption is a move forward. It is actually 50 steps backward.

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