The Access to Information Bill has been passed in the National Assembly after emerging from a Special Select Committee with no major changes.
Prime Minister Samuel Hinds in presenting the bill for its second reading said 20 of the 50 clauses were amended during its time in the committee.
“There were no major changes in principle, purpose or intent; the amendments made mainly were of the sort to clarify what was intended and to remove ambiguities and maybe some typos and layout issues.”
The bill had been sent to the select committee upon the government’s request but opposition participation in the committee was limited to the AFC’s Raphael Trotman. The opposition parties have objected to meetings being held during the parliamentary recess which runs from August to October and have also boycotted the sittings.
Government had said the meetings were necessary to get outstanding business cleared before the dissolution of parliament later this month.
This bill provides for setting out a practical regime of right to information for persons to secure access to information under the control of public authorities in order to promote transparency and accountability in the working of the government and public authorities and for the appointment of the Commissioner of Information,” the explanatory memorandum states.
It provides the right of all Guyanese and non-Guyanese the access to an official document with some exceptions.
Exempt documents include Cabinet documents, those likely to prejudice the defence of the State, international relations documents and those relating to law enforcement, legal professional privileges and trade secrets.
Hinds said the legislation was merely a first step to a more open society under the PPP/C government.
“Systems would have to be established and coordinated all across the government and the public agencies … but I have no doubt that this is a necessary first step and that in soon time we would have a really effective, functioning system in our country where citizens can have access to the information that the government uses in its work,” he stated.
The PM also sought to clarify what he said was a misconception on the exemption of the president under the law. He pointed out that the Office of the President was not exempt under the access to information legislation but rather the president as a private individual.
The bill provides for the appointment by the president of a Commissioner of Information who will handle the requests for information. Hinds stated that there was a view that the COI should be appointed along the lines of the rights commissioners but that the government stuck to its view that the portfolio is that of a public servant.
‘The government sees the Commissioner and his office and his supporting staff, we see them as a functionary of the government, somewhat like a Permanent Secretary. We do not share the sentiments of some that the Commission should be established like a rights commission,” he added.
There were some 10 written submissions and three oral presentations to the select committee from the public and organisations at the invitation of the body.
Hinds had earlier noted that the public has been accessing information before the introduction of the bill through ministry websites, via parliamentary committees, weekly post-Cabinet press conferences and annual reports.
However, he added that one criticism of the legislation is that the access to information currently enjoyed by citizens is not “a right.”
“It would be good to see what really is the difference between what has bee provided hitherto and what is required in the various Freedom of Information bills,” he said.
Hinds added that the bill is in accord with both the Guyana Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as it relates to freedom of expression and access to information.