Who has the power?

| 16/05/2010

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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Comments (46)

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  1. Expenses please? says:

    CNS did you ever get a response to this FOI request you made?

    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?”

    I may have missed the article, in which case please do guide me in the right direction because I am still curious to see a detailed breakdown of these expenses.

    CNS: The ministry’s FOI officer has asked for a 30 day extension, which he is legally entitled to do, and has said that I will receive the information by 11 July.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Has Mr. Bush come forth with an "explanation" for his outburst? I’d be curious.

  3. Anonymous says:

    BREAKING NEWS – Mickey McMouse appeared in summary court this afternoon charged with the newly created offence under section 007 of the Penal Code of "Criticizing McKeeva". Mickey appeared before Magistrate Shetdart Rianne and asked for a trial date.

    The Magistrate promptly responded that there would be no trial and that if Mickey wasn’t guilty McKeeva would not have brought him here !

    Down went the gavel and sentence was pronounced as $100,000 or 3 months in jail. Mickey asked for time to pay since he had spent all of his money in a failed under the table deal to avoid his court appearance (a claimed vehemently denied by the puppets and puppet master).

    So HMP van is on the way to Northward now with our beloved Mickey.

    As the van left the court house Idi Amin who had forgotten his TV microphone on after a public address in Heros Square was heard over the PA system saying ……."betcha dah Nicky Watson will shut up now"

    As we write this post there is FURTHER BREAKING NEWS……the UDP  has announced that due to an illness called "acute stupiditis" McKeeva has stepped down as Premier and party leader and will be assuming the post of Speaker of the LA……..aka the ‘Mothball Preparation Center"

    The Ambassador for Jesus is now Acting Premier so all should be well for at least the next 24 hrs. Stay tuned !

     

     

  4. Anonymous says:

    Nicky, I am worried about your second request for the expenses incurred by Mac and his hand holders/ kissers on "Official Travel" jaunts. Because you worded it so specifically they may find a loophole to providing you those figures. One: the government probably hasn’t paid any of those bills as yet so officially it may not be on their books so they can leave a good portion of the expenses as unverified and of course not report them.  Second your request specifically named the Ministries that incurred the expenses ie: DOT. They might get creative on you and move the expenses to the balance sheet of another Ministry ( I don’t know maybe MRCU, Gender Affairs, Public Works any of those under the Deputy Premier might be a great place to hide the numbers)  and yet again circumvent giving you the information you are requesting.  Oh to be a fly on the wall of the CFO’s in those ministries. Fear is the ultimate motivator.

  5. Afraid to Strap on a Pair Also says:

    Nicky- Can we talk about why we can’t  talk about the cruise ship passenger with a kidney stone?

    CNS: Yes. I just don’t know if there would be legal implications if the case ended up in court, which seems likely. If there are any actual lawyers out there who could offer advise, that would be great.

    I think I just answered the question in the heading.

  6. Anonymous says:

    My take on this whole issue is not the fact that a question was asked and the answer was given, but rather the fact that after the response to the first question was provided she then when on to ask two more questions similar to the first.    

    In my opinion this is a waste of public funds.   If the press is doing their job efficiently and with the public’s interest at heart, then they should decide what questions are relevant to their story and ask them all at once.

    For anyone who understands the process involved in providing information under FOI will know that the same research undertaken to answer the first question will have to be done again to answer the 2nd and 3rd if they are submitted at a different time. 

    CNS: Hmm …. strange logic. The 2nd FOI, which brings the premier’s travel itinerary up to date, was asked because the ministry took almost three months to answer the first, not because I forgot to ask. Now that they have his itinerary settled, it will make it possible for them to answer the FOI about expenses.

  7. Anonymous says:

    What I would like to know is what happens with all the airmiles – I know in companies have worked in they get pulled into a central source and used by the company for travel as opposed to individuals keeping them for personal use  . I’d imagine Mac and his cronies will have racked up quite a lot bearing in mind they dont from what I understand travel budget class 

     

    Is there an official policy with regards Airmiles and if not why not 

  8. Anonymous says:

    This is a real question.  Why does this man have a "press secretary", as I think he prefers to speak for himself and appears not to use the"press secretary" office to help temper his comments.  Oh, and lets not forgot the salary of the "press secretary" either! 

    • Anonymous says:

      You made several statements, but asked no questions. Would you like to ask a question?

  9. Snap says:

    I do.

  10. Anonymous says:

    I wish Mac would understand that there are some of us pretty sensible people out here who welcome his energy and contrast it with the soporific/snooze approach to leadership demonstrated by Kurt (an academically much sounder leader). BUT, and it’s a huge but, he completely loses our support when he launches these ignorant petulant attacks on FOI, Desmond, CNS etc. Doesn’t he have any "minders" who can reign in the schoolboy in him and make him display, in public at least, only the demeanour of a statesman? No wonder so many expats look at our politicians and consider them dimwitted banana republic types. It’s so unfortunate and unfair.

    It all makes one long for the days of Truman, Tom and John…………

    • Rabble Rouser says:

      Longing for the days of Truman? You been smoking some of the MacBush?

      • Anonymous says:

        I would much prefer to turn back the hands of time to the days of Truman, Tom, Benson, Charles, Ms Annie, Mr Craddock, and so many other leaders blessed with good sense of governance and morals. AND, how I wish Dr. Roy was still here to lead us out of this mess! Unfortunately he and many of the other great leaders named are no longer with us and the two that are, are respected by the ignorant. There is a saying that a country gets the government it deserves but I am wrestling with the acceptance of our present plight.

  11. Anonymous says:

    I think we can appreciate that this letter was coming, understandably so, but a couple questions for CNS, if you’d be so inclined.

    1.)  Do you truly believe that the way the FOI law is structured now, whereby applicants pay nothing for their requests is feasible for  our Government bearing in mind the current state of Finances and the time it takes a Civil Servant to research and deliver information?  Theoretically everyone on the island could submit FOI requests tomorrow and literally cripple Government as they would have to bow to the requests to stay in line with the law.

    2.) Would you be against Government implementing  a fee for FOI requests whether it is a flat fee or on a time -billed basis?  Time is money and very few places you get stuff for free…you can’t even get a police report for free – and that is fairly simple, why should time consuming compilations of FOI requests be free?

    my .02

    CNS: This is really the same question twice. No I don’t believe there should be a standard fee attached to FOI requests because:

    1. The law already allows for fees where there is a cost involved in preparing the response.

    2. The law allows for refusal in the grounds of frivolous or vexatious requests.

    3. The concept behind FOI is to promote open government. We want more people to use this tool, not put up more obstacles, and we want the public sector to make information available as a matter of habit — before it is requested..

    4. It would eliminate the right to make a request anonymously — Mr Bush’s outburst clearly illustrates why this is necessary.

    5. Many requests are for information that should be in the public domain already. The public should not have to pay for that.

    6. The information requested might be hard to find because of inefficient record keeping or because it has been deliberately hidden. The public should not have to pay for that either.
    7. A request might reveal waste within the public sector. The public should definitely not have to pay for that.

    8. Yes, theoretically everyone on the island could make an FOI request this morning, but realistically the chances of that happening are (I’m guessing here) nil.

    Now, I know many civilservants work very long hours and it may be that the burden of answering FOI requests may fall on people who are already overworked. However, accountability within government – and this is the heart of what we are talking about here – cannot be a bad thing, especially given the state of current government finances.

    • Anonymous says:

      With Freedom of Expression and particularly via the Press comes very serious responsibility.  To inform, not ridicule to express and not just portray biased news.  Not saying you do so but just Just a mild reminder

  12. I read the news today oh boy says:

    In today’s Compass (Monday) they editorialized and pussy footed around the issue of freedom of expression, making veiled comments about "responsible journalism" as opposed to "irresponsible journalism", upholding themselves as an example of the former.  They must forget where we live and in that case I’ll remind them:  We live in a country where a good portion of the population are on work permits issued by the government.  And where over half the population are not allowed to vote. "Anonymous" is a term many of us have not had to use before.  Does it irk us?  You got that right.  Wake up Compass and smell the coffee.  What you’re seeing is a mere necessity used to uphold our rights of freedom of expression.  You could be next.

    • Anonymous says:

      The Compost is hilarious: "Although we share Mr. Bush’s frustrations, for we sometimes find ourselves at a competitive disadvantage for practising responsible journalism…" No, you find yourselvesat a competitive disadvantage because you are continually two steps behind CNS, despite the fact that they have a staff of two. "Responsible journalism" LMAO – where’s the story about Malportas Pond or the resent destruction of mangroves. Thank goodness we have CNS and no longer have to rely on the compost for news.

      • Anonymous says:

        Hello……., You don’t worry too much about Compass. Not many people read it anyway. Some compaines who used to buy this bias newspaper in hundreds daily, do not buy them now. They will have to live on hand outs from UDP backers.

    • Mr. Praline says:

      The Compass bowed to the pressure of the oppressors when it only published letters from identified individuals so that valid free speech was wiped out in that publication.

    • Hmm... says:

      in addition to the people on work permits who are not allowed to vote and (I am inferring) are afraid to speak, you forgot the people who can vote but are not allowed to speak. Right to remain does not equate to right to work even at a job that you are qualified for and have experience in. I suspect this extends beyond those in the public sector who are actually prohibited by law from saying anything, and bearing in mind that apparently everything is political.

    • Anonymous says:

      Cayman Net News stated the following:

      The current Constitution of the Cayman Islands, while not specifically mentioning press freedom, does refer to freedom of communication.

      "No person shall be hindered by government in the enjoyment of his or her freedom of expression, which includes freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference, and freedom from interference with his or her correspondence or other means of communication."

       

      Apparently this doesn’t cover my strong desire to express myself through live music on Sundays.

  13. Aaron says:

    Who has the power? Every time Nicky, I go on CNS, I am asking myself that question. What if the government has enough power to retrieve the IP addresses of certain blogs and comments, and many people suffer or lose their jobs because of the expression of their views? And don’t say if we lose our jobs, you will compensate us??? So… I must ask myself, "who has the power?" The one with the money and the connections? I believe Mr. Bush has both, and you are well-off to defend yourself. But the other commentators and bloggers on your site. Emmm… How well can you defend?

    CNS: Firstly CNS is hosted in the US. Secondly, we do not require any personal information (emails are optional) and store only the most recent two hours worth of IP address based information, which is then purged. Therefore, retrieving the identity of commenters who do not include their names and email addresses at a later date would be impossible, regardless of power, money or connections.

    • Joe Average says:

      I move once a week

    • Anonymous For Cause says:

      Congratulations to everyone at CNS and to all of the responsible bloggers who have the best interests of the Cayman Islands at heart. I support you.

    • Anonymous says:

      Thank God for CNS! I applaud you Nicky and Wendy for the excellent work that you do and humbly thank you for providing this means of self expression. Without CNS there would exist a mostly silent society in these very troubling times in these beloved Islands. If the overinflated fines that were threatened are imposed I am pretty sure that many of us out here will be happy to donate to the cause!  

    • Micky Mouse says:

      I use the computer in my boss’ office in Disney World.  Don’t screw with Disney.

      • Anonymous says:

        I’ll borrow Mickey Mouse’s  (Oops! Sorry that ones Nicky’s) !!! 

        I’ll use Minnnie Mouses !!!

    • Keds says:

      The Cayman People (“the People”) have the Power! No Caymanian should fear any politician as they are human just like the rest of us. Furthermore be reminded that they are elected to serve and represent the People. Despite my growing distrust for the Premier (based solely on his own rants), I understand that as our appointed leader he is there to represent the People and should be supported in Nation advancing initiatives. What I will not stand for are any attempts to stifle me or the press from requesting, investigating and disseminating information. Politicians should be held to a higher standard and should be embracing the FOI knowing that it will help to make Goverment operations more open and transparent, unless of course they feel like they don’t have to answer to the People. At which point the People have the Power to not re-elect them.

  14. Rabble Rouser says:

    It’s only fun because Mac makes it fun.

  15. Anonymous says:

    I’m with Mr Bush on this one.

    It is all the press’s fault making our country look bad.

    It is not the MLA’s fault if they try and beat up tourists or if our Premier swans off to watch the Olympics, Miss Universe or enjoy Bali at our expense when the country is broke.

    It is not the fault of the MLA’s when they storm on to radio stationsKanya style, hurling abuse, or when an MLA uses the N word on the radio

    You can’t stop UDP MLA’s acting like this, like you can’t stop a dog with fleas from scratching, it’s just all natural to them.

    So stop blaming them for embarassing Cayman, it’s all the press’s fault for reporting their sordid actions

  16. TennisAce says:

     Well finally a journalist who is actually doing what a journalist should be doing.  Educating the public about how their government works and seeking to assist the public in understanding how government works.  I have to believe that this step by CNS is as a result of the feedback generated by the Premier’s comments as well as CNS making efforts to let the public know how the FOI is supposed to work.  Good job.   Also good job on adding additional information resources to members of the public so that they can know where they stand.  I find that a lot of the people in Cayman are ignorant when it comes to how governments work and it would be good if CNS could use this new found source of power to inform members of the public as to how governments work.  Sometimes things that you and I may consider a waste of a country’s valuable resources are actually essential things that need to be done. 

     

    For the life of me sometimes I cannot understand why governments cannot use the electronic resources that the private sector uses in order to communicate.  Why is it necessary for them to travel all over the world to sign documents. That is the reason why we have FedEx etc.   Send the document by email, make changes, send it back, then when everyone has agreed the final document, you send the original by FedEx, get it signed and send it back by  FedEx again.  How hard is that to do?  

    CEOs of some of the largest companies in the world use international courier services to do their business, why do governments not consider this.  Oh well, I guess that is something we will never know. 

  17. NorthSideSue says:

    Well done, Nicky.

  18. islandman says:

    Please keep up the excellent work CNS.

  19. Scrooge McDuck says:

    I would like to be a citizen journalist but it will involve some traveling. First, I would like to go to Paris to interview people.  And let them know Cayman isn’t such a bad place after all.  I’m also concerned what the people in Hawaii think of us.  And then there’s Rome. And of course Vienna and Amsterdam. 

    But I would be willing to do this CNS for a small stipend, hotels, airfare and food.

  20. A Word From Our Sponsor says:

    The overall answer to this problem is obvious:

    The Government should publish it’s own weekly newspaper.

    The Premier could act as Editor-In-Chief.  And various ministries could publish accounts of their activities to counteract what they feel is negative press.  And..to make it a level playing field.. we should be allowed to comment anonymously.

    I would pay fifty cents to be given this opportunity.

    • Of course that would be a swell idea!  But when you have one man running things, good ideas tend to be put on the back burner.

      Dear Mr. Bush

      Why attack error by using force, hefty fines or penalities against news entities such as CNS??? You are only creating more animosity against you and your party!

      Please learn to fight from the one you profess to follow – Jesus.

      The head of Christianity, attacked error by the proclamation of the Truth! He used no force, but just continually spoke what he knew to be true. It took patience, but bore alot of fruit. Only if you can follow his lead.

      Note Mr. Bush that the ones who crucified your Savior and Lord, were the very ones who attempted to censor what he was saying.

      You claim to follow Jesus, you need to practice what you preach. Alot of times, errors and falsehood is necessary so that the truth can be glorified.

      Peace

  21. Lachlan MacTavish says:

     Let me add my kudo’s to Nicky and Wendy. One of these decades Cayman will emerge into the light and have true freedom of speech, expression and the press. Our future politico’s will hopefully understand that they are elected for the people and the country….not themselves.

    Press on CNS

  22. Anonymous says:

    Excellent news. If it were up to me I would give you each a "people’s choice" medal for your services to the community.

  23. Joe Public says:

    I commend you on this viewpoint Nicky, because it concisely asks the same question many of us are asking.  It’s a very fundamental question with regards to our democracy regarding the free flow of information.  For the head of the UN to release a statement along the same lines it must be seen as problem throughout the world. The very basis of what separates so called dictatorships and it’s alternative democracy is that decisions are not merely made arbitrarily and reflect the views of the people.  Along with that also in a democracy information is allowed to flow freely from government to the people and vice versa.  For governments to operate under a democratic system they must allow this to happen… and facilitate it or they are in danger of falling the other way.  They can describe it any way they want, and use terms such as national security to withhold information or obscure it, but in my mind a half-democracy is no democracy at all. 

    And this is where we have to define democracy for which wars have been fought.

    It is such a common term, and used so often, what does it really mean to us?  For many of us it means freedom.  And the freedom to live our lives knowing the correct decisions are made for us.  Tied in with this it also means information and the knowledge of what government is doing.  And disagreeing when we have to. Generally, we don’t see a problem with that, and that is the system we support. It therefore must be made clear that is why we voted and that is the main reason our leaders and representatives maintain our support.  Because… we are agreed they have the same objective.  If they need a reminder of that from time to time to tell them what the objective is it is our job and the media’s job to do so.

  24. Anonymous says:

    Nicky

    I appreciate where you are coming from but you seem to be headed in the direction of Desmond who as we know just about everyone discredits. I have noticed how you have kept this story at the top of the news page despite other new news. It’s called sensationalism, something perfected by Desmond himself. We all know that this is how his newspaper grew so fast but look at him now and all his troubles and how much his paper has shrunk. Don’t do that to yourself.

    I don’t like what MCKeeva had to say but I would hate to see this become some sort of vendetta or torch to carry for you until the next election. Politicians everywhere don’t like the press but the press must do it’s job. I only ask that you be fair, unbiased and keep away from the sensationalism.

    Keep up the good work but don’t let the power go to your head. We have too many examples of what takes place when that happens.

    Just some food for thought..

    CNS: Well, that’s the first time I’ve been compared to Desmond! I appreciate your concern but let me assure you that this is not a vendetta, nor will it become one. However, we (and I mean "we" the media) cannot allow politicians to bully us. It’s true that politicians in all countries have a need-love-hate relationship with the press but it’s hard to imagine David Cameron threatening the Telegraph editor with jail time for not paying a hefty fine – imposed for doing something that displeased Number 10.

    The media in the Cayman Islands has a whole has come a long way over the last decade. That’s really healthy for the country and we cannot allow the strides made in establishing the freedom of the press to be eroded in any way. The accountability of government is not a small issue.

    On the other point, the article was posted Friday evening right before a long weekend – no new headline articles have been posted since. Wendy is working on new stuff but even internet journalists need some time off!

    • Anonymous says:

      i hope it does become a ‘vendetta’ pursued by the people…. freedom of speech and freedom of the press is worthy of a ‘vendetta’

      • Johnny says:

        Agreed

        If Mac puts it on top of his agenda to censor a news service because of their blogs and comments, that news service has the right to defend themself. That is how I see it!

  25. whodatis says:

    Keep up the good work guys!