Opposition ups pressure for Freedom of Information Bill
“People want to know how their tax dollars are being spent and on what.”- AFC
As pressure continues to mount for government to table the long-awaited Freedom of Information legislation, at least two opposition leaders have chided the administration for allowing the relevant processes to meander along.
Leader of the People’s National Congress Reform (PNCR), Robert Corbin, yesterday said that the failure to bring this piece of critical legislation before the National Assembly after the recent recess is a clear indication of disrespect with the time ripe for a “regime change”.
Khemraj Ramjattan, Chairman of the Alliance For Change (AFC), the party which had originally tabled a draft bill over two years ago, was less subtle and said that the continuing promises of President Bharrat Jagdeo were “hollow”.
In August, the President had promised the tabling of the bill once Parliament reconvened in October.
“As soon as Parliament comes out of recess, the Freedom of Information Act and Broadcast Legislation will be passed,” Jagdeo had told reporters at the Guyana International Convention Centre where he had scheduled a meeting with cable operators.
Earlier this year, Attorney General and Minister of Legal Affairs, Charles Ramson, had committed to August.
However, last Thursday there were no indications in the National Assembly of the bill.
Tomorrow, another sitting is to be held and there are still no signs.
According to Ramjattan, officials of the Chambers of the Attorney General were not aware of any drafting of the bill.
“We are not sure if the draft is being done by a private expert since the government is not saying anything.”
A Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is being seen as key to force government’s hands in releasing what should have been public information. With increasing pressure to ensure more transparency of government contracts, and the difficulties in obtaining information, even media houses have resorted to printing public service advertisements (PSAs) to send the message home on the importance of act.
While Speaker of the National Assembly, Ralph Ramkarran, did not return calls to Kaieteur News yesterday, Chief Whip of the PNCR, Lance Carberry, has said that he was not surprised that the document was not available.
He said that he would not be waiting with bated breath to see if the bill will be tabled shortly.
In April last year, Cabinet Secretary, Dr. Roger Luncheon, had announced the bill as a priority for the ninth Parliamentary Session.
In addition to this now burning issue, the Broadcast Legislation Bill is still to be tabled.
Government has been arguing that the bill is key to allowing more television and radio stations.
There have been accusations by the opposition parties that the ruling People’s Progressive Party/Civic (PPP/C) was reluctant for the bills to be tabled as it would mean more oversight for contracts.
“The President’s promises are hollow. We note the constant deferrals of these bills which are designed to be the pillars of democracy for Guyana,” Ramjattan said yesterday.
The AFC official pointed to the Skeldon factory and the recent announcement that 90,000 homes would be equipped with laptops.
“People want to know how their tax dollars are being spent and on what. This is something that has critical bearing on the very pillars of democracy. Instead of the President’s announcement of paying attention to Skeldon estate, this is a far more important issue.”
Pressed on what is AFC’s next move now that the FOIA and Broadcast Legislation may very well not be possible in this session, the official was succinct. “We will have to do what we have been doing all time; raising the matter.”
According to Ramjattan, AFC is of the view that the PPP/C is definitely not interested in the FOIA.
Commenting on the issue yesterday, Corbin stressed that the matter is a burning one that has been raised repeatedly in the press by his party.
“What we are concentrating now is a regime change because that is the only way we can address some of these burning issues. This is not a priority for government right now – that much is clear.”
According to the PNCR’s leader, the party had raised the issue long before AFC had tabled a draft.
Corbin also criticized the stalling of moves that would allow Parliament to know a few months in advance what bills would be presented to be debated. Because of this stalling, opposition parties have six days to know what is coming.
The Prime Minister’s Office was tasked with spearheading the crafting of Broadcast Legislation, while the Office of the President was dealing with the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act, Ramson had said. President Jagdeo holds the portfolio of Minister of Information.
The Broadcasting Bill is seen as key to the issuance of additional TV and radio licences, and breaking the monopoly on radio.
The government owns and controls the country’s lone radio station, National Communications Network, under whose operation the government-run TV station falls. With many complaining of difficulties to access information about government contracts and other similar matters, the FOIA is a crucial bill that is expected to make it illegal to withhold information.
Last December, Chief Justice (ag) Ian Chang, in a High Court ruling, ordered that the National Frequency Management Unit (NFMU) speedily grant broadcast licences to those who want to broadcast in Linden and in Region Ten.
Lindeners, Norman Chapman and Mortimer Yearwood, had taken the government to court to be issued with television licences.
Chang ruled that the rights of citizens under Article 146 of the Constitution cannot be abridged based on an agreement made between President Bharrat Jagdeo and Opposition Leader Robert Corbin.
In 2003, the two, by means of a signed communiqué, had agreed that no new licences would be granted until broadcast legislation has been enacted. The process should have taken a year.
Chapman and Yearwood had moved to the High Court, prior to the 2006 General Elections, claiming that their fundamental rights were being breached by their not being able to have radio or TV broadcasts other than from state-owned radio and television.