Archive for May 16th, 2010

Who has the power?

| 16/05/2010 | 46 Comments

On the same day that the premier’s ministry answered my freedom of information request about what countries he has visited since the elections and who accompanied him, I submitted another request asking about his travel expenses. If record keeping in the ministry is as it should be, these requests should be neither time consuming nor difficult.

The fact that the first request took the ministry from the 24 February, when they first received it (having been forwarded to them from the Cabinet Office where it was first sent), to 14 May to find answers to the questions posed highlighted a basic inefficiency in the system. It is mind boggling that the premier’s ministry didn’t know where the premier was and who he was with on any given day; this is the kind of information that should be posted daily on the premier’s website …well, if he had one.

An additional advantage to the country of having FOI in place is that it encourages better record keeping by civil servants. I have also submitted a request to bring the travel details up to date, so let’s see how long that takes.

For the record this is my request on expenses, sent to the ministry on 14 May: “Since the elections, how much has Ministry of Finance, Tourism & Development spent on travel for the Leader of Government Business/Premier McKeeva Bush and his travelling companions? On each trip, how much did the ministry spend on transportation, hotels, meals and entertainment, and other expenses?”

By law, the ministry must now acknowledge the request within ten calendar days, deal with it as soon as possible, and give me a decision within 30 calendar days unless they request an extension in writing. More details about the FOI process is on the FOI Unit’s website. What is not made clear on the site is the point that obviously irks Mr Bush – that people can make requests under pseudonyms via email. It seems to me that by spending a considerable proportion of last Thursday’s press briefing berating me by name for making an FOI, the premier has pretty much guaranteed that Mickey Mouse will be making a lot of FOI requests in the future.

Ironically, the theme of this year’s World Press Freedom Day, observed on 3 May, was “Freedom of information: the right to know”.

In his message UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said, “Freedom of expression is a fundamental human right, enshrined in article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But around the world, there are Governments and those wielding power who find many ways to obstruct it. They impose high taxes on newsprint, making newspapers so expensive that people can’t afford to buy them. Independent radio and television stations are forced off the air if they criticize Government policy. The censors are also active in cyberspace, restricting the use of the Internet and new media. Some journalists risk intimidation, detention and even their lives, simply for exercising their right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas, through any media, and regardless of frontiers.”

In that press briefing ten days later Mr Bush, in the mostpublic way possible, ranted on live television and radio about a single FOI request and made threats to raise the Trade and Business licence for those media houses that incur his wrath to $100,000, saying that media owners who did not pay would go to jail for three months. No wonder he chose not to go to the UN seminar himself next week! I expect they want a word with him.

Regardless of the premier’s futile and childish threats (does he honestly believe that the UK government would allow him to embarrass them in that way?), it seems that the biggest threat to FOI working as it should in this country is obstruction by civil servants.

Information Commissioner Jennifer Dilbert recently raised concerns that government entities have not embraced the culture of freedom of information and said that requests for people’s identity, incidents of intimidation and unfounded refusals have all been reported to her office. We strongly endorse her plea for people to tell her office if they are encountering these problems.

But what happens to responses after they have been given to the person who made the request? If the information is considered general public interest, the FOI Law requires public authorities to publish it, and many government entities post the responses on their websites. However, this covers a lot of websites that people might not visit regularly or at all, and what about the information not considered general public interest?

In order to do our part to support this vital part of our democracy, Cayman News Service has introduced an FOI section, which can now be found on the main menu bar. This is the first stage in two developments on the site that I believe could help the Cayman Islands along the wobbly road to a true democracy. The first is the concept of “citizen journalists”, whereby you, the people, are able to bring to the public eye issues and events that you believe are important and not just wait for journalists to cover them. The second is an online public library, where anyone can look up local laws and find important public documents. (Soon come!)

If anyone has an FOI response that they believe should be in the public domain they can send it to me (nickywatson@caymannewsservice.com) with any additional information, relevant official letters and comments, as well as refusal letters, and we will post it in our FOI section. This project will only work if you, the public, run with the idea – make FOI requests (please use this valuable resource) and then send it to us to post in our FOI library.

As any tyrant will tell you, access to information is the key to power; if you are ignorant of the facts they can tell you anything they like. Freedom of information puts that key in your hands but it’s up to you whether you use it or not.

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