CIVIL society watchdog group Jamaica Accountability Meter Portal (JAMP) has cautioned parliamentarians against the perception that they are not subject to the same rules as ordinary Jamaicans when it comes to public disclosure of criminal investigations.
JAMP made the argument in support of the removal of the gag clause (section 53) in the Integrity Commission Act. In its recommendations, which are before the joint select committee of Parliament reviewing the Integrity Commission Act, the group argued that the withholding of information on the offences of parliamentarians under the Act extends beyond excluding announcing investigations that it is believed might taint the integrity of the country's political leaders, or tip the scales of justice unfairly.
"Guided by exchanges with the Integrity Commission, we were advised that upon completion of any investigation that leads to a charge or prosecution, the commission cannot lawfully inform the Jamaican people," the group lamented.
It further stated that, "when subjected to a public interest test, it has long been deemed beneficial for the society to have knowledge of persons of interest in matters of criminal investigations and certainly when charges and/or convictions apply. Non-parliamentarian citizens of Jamaica are not afforded this privilege of privacy nor protection of reputation when found in similar unenviable situations," JAMP said, noting that while it doesn't believe this is what lawmakers intended, section 52 of the Act has led to an interpretation that favours the governed and creates an inequity that would serve not only to reinforce the belief of too many that there are two Jamaicas but would further embed distrust of "self-serving politicians".
The committee is reviewing the Act with a view to making changes, as required by law.
But warning that the gag provision is deleterious to good governance, JAMP questioned whether section 53 serves to stem or support the fight against corruption, and urged lawmakers to consider whether it supports or denies the commission of its responsibility to educate the public.
The group says the restriction is also inconsistent with one of the fundamental principles underlying the system of constitutional democracy, outlined in the 2002 Access to Information Act.
"We have local and international examples of investigative bodies advising of the intention to probe 'a matter of concern', with no indication that it has jeopardised either examination of the issue. It grants the assurance the public needs, it allows for those with information to come forward and it does not do harm to any individual's reputation," JAMP said, urging the oversight committee to agree that the main concern of parliamentarians' reputation can be addressed, without hindering transparency, obstructing the fight against corruption, and creating inequity in the treatment of legislators and those outside of the parliamentary system.
At the same time, the group urged Parliament to regularise the practice of receiving details of the commission's findings until its reports are actually tabled in the House.
At last week's meeting of the committee, Minister of Legal and Constitutional Affairs Marlene Malahoo Forte acknowledged that a part of the concern with the commission not wanting to wait until reports reach Parliament is that reports are not debated consistently.
JAMP also pointed out that although Parliament's Ethics Committee is supposed to monitor reports from the commission in respect of non-compliance of members, and receive and investigate any reports of civil or criminal proceedings being instituted against legislators, the restriction on disclosure has obstructed that committee from fulfilling this accountability function.
"We submit that all sections of the Act that have so disabled our Ethics Committee be modified to allow resumption of this duty," JAMP insisted.
The civil society group asserted that, just like other crimes, the public's input is important to stamping out corruption.
"The constabulary weighs in the balance the decision to speak of a murder and solicit the public's help for information against the risk of making the issue public and putting a murderer to flight," JAMP said, adding that despite this risk, the police acknowledge that making announcements which may lead to public input is beneficial to solving cases.