NASSAU, New Providence, (October 31, 2016) – In reaction to the postponement of tabling of the revised Freedom of Information Bill 2015, Organization for Responsible Governance (ORG), an apolitical non-profit organization advocating for open, accountable and responsible governance, has urged the government to not lose sight of the important legislation and has pledged to redouble efforts to educate the public on the issue.
In a statement to press on October 24th 2016, Minister of Education, Science and Technology, Jerome Fitzgerald, who has responsibility for the passage of FOIA, announced that the tabling of the revised Freedom of Information Bill would be postponed. The statement read: “It was initially intended to have the [Freedom of Information] bill tabled in the House of Assembly late October 2016. However due to the unforeseen setbacks caused by Hurricane Matthew, it is likely that the bill will be tabled before the end of the year.”
The move has drawn criticism from Opposition Leader, Hubert Minnis, and DNA Leader, Branville McCartney, both of whom have cited storm recovery borrowing and the recent controversy and secrecy around Baha Mar as one of many reasons that a FOIA is necessary. ORG Executive Director, Matt Aubry, stated that while the organization understands the need to focus on hurricane relief, they agree with the party leaders on insisting that FOIA continue to be a priority. ORG invites Mr. Minnis, Mr. McCartney, and all MPs, party leaders and candidate to join civil society and private industry organizations in creating this change.
“We understand that Hurricane Matthew has created a shift of focus which may cause setbacks in the House of Assembly’s agenda. However, ORG cautions that, as the Bahamas rebuilds from this national disaster, the long-term recovery of The Bahamas and the sustainability of our economy must remain in focus. To that end, ORG and our partners in civil society and private industry will continue to fight to ensure that a strong, fair FOIA is passed before the end of 2016.”
He continued. “The support of MPs, Party Leaders and candidates in this goal is crucial and we are glad that Dr. Minnis and Mr. McCartney have declared that they are taking transparency and accountability seriously. ORG and our 17 partner organizations aim to meet with the representatives to discuss the bill, its importance for their constituents and civil society’s suggestions for making it as robust legislation as possible. We need to make sure that the MPs fully understand the bill when it is tabled.”
Mr. Aubry also commended the Minister of Education’s statement for acknowledging the role of civil society in FOIA, “ORG was pleased to see the minister thank civil society and the private sector and hope it is a sign that our suggestions will be reflected in the new bill. We recommend that the process continues as an open, transparent and collaborative effort, and look forward to working with the government and our various civil society partners to bring this bill to fruition.”
Earlier this year, ORG and 17 other groups drafted a series of suggested amendments to the bill aimed at ultimately creating a FOIA that “gives power to the people” and “keeps the Government honest.” The amendments put forth in their recommendations would increase the scope of government entities subject to the FOIA, clarify what information is eligible for discretionary exemption, denial, or referral, give the Freedom of Information Unit and Information Commissioner more autonomy and keep it beyond the reach of potential government interference, and provide better protection for persons who step forward with information on wrongdoing within government.
In September, ORG and its partners launched a joint public education campaign featuring an online petition to endorse passage of the bill with suggested recommendations from the groups. The group has since expanded campaign efforts with media appearances, as well as printed educational information and social media. The group is now preparing to launch a letter writing campaign and grassroots education drive and meet with MPs and leaders to discuss accountability and transparency.
The Organization for Responsible Governance (ORG), a membership based, non-profit foundation, founded in 2015, is comprised of Bahamian citizens, residents, student and youth organizations, civic groups, community leaders, businesses, associations and civil society. This diverse group focuses on initiating national dialogue on core socioeconomic and geopolitical concerns affecting The Bahamas, including open and accountable government; fiscal, energy, educational, economic, immigration and constitutional reforms; the equitable enforcement of the rule of law; monetary policy; trade agreements and the ease of doing business.