Freedom of Information Act seeks regional support

Belize and other Caribbean countries will now have regional support  to develop, implement and enforc Freedom of Information (FOI) laws .

According to Oceana-Belize’s vice president, Audrey Matura-Shepherd, who participated in a two-day Regional Conference on Freedom of Information in the Commonwealth Caribbean, held in Jamaica, the participants agreed to form the network  to provide assistance to member countries that want to move ahead with the creation, implementation or enforcement of FOI legislation.

Matura-Shepherd said that the group’s decision could not have come at a more appropriate time, “Belize is the most offending country with the [FOI] law. There are countries that don’t even have the law and are still better than us.”

She pointed out that although Belize was one of the first jurisdictions in the region to enact such legislation, it has one of the worst track records as it pertains to the law’s implementation and enforcement.

At the conference, the participants made at stark comparison of jurisdictions such as Belize and the Cayman Islands. Since the FOIA was enacted in Belize in 1994, there have been less than a dozen FOIA requests, while in the Cayman—a country that has a much smaller population—there has been approximately 3000 requests made under the FOIA.

She explained that a large part of the debilitations of the FOI law in Belize is due to straightforward institutional weaknesses, such as the lack of information officers in each public office. She said that such an individual would serve as the person responsible to provide the requested information under the FOIA.

Taking it a step further, Matura-Shepherd said, “Belize needs an Information Commissioner Office similar to the one that exists in the Cayman Islands.”

The Information Commissioner Office—patterned after the Cayman model— would serve as an independent entity responsible for monitoring compliance with the FOI law.

The Commissioner, in the case when individuals who evoke the FOI law are denied access, has the authority to review the matter, “make all findings of fact and law, and issue a binding decision.”

It must be noted that the Cayman model is premised on the philosophy that Freedom of Information Law must be “based on the principle that the government should rarely, and only in compelling circumstances, possess more information than the citizens possess.”

It goes on to state that their FOI Law “takes away the discretion of government to determine what information, if any, they choose to provide, when, and to whom. … The Law seeks to strike a balance between the public’s legitimate right to know and the need for government to keep some information confidential.”

Matura-Shepherd, comparing the Belize FOI to that described in the Cayman, added that enforcement has to be stepped-up in Belize, because public officers are not held accountable or penalized in any form when they fail to comply with the law.

She cited Oceana’s attempts in 2011 and 2012 to implement the FOIA to access information on the oil contracts signed between six companies and the Government of Belize as a prime example.

Among the things requested, Oceana had asked government to provide documents that demonstrate the “expertise and technical, financial and economic capability” of the individuals or companies that applied for the contracts. The NGO also asked for documents that showed the “decision-making” process used by the Government of Belize for entering into the contracts.

“They never abided by the law and to date we do not even have one bit of information furnished to us via the FOIA. …They just totally ignored it [the law],” She said.

“As it stands, there is no penalty for [the Geology and Petroleum Department’s] Andre Cho and the Minister of Natural Resources Gaspar Vega for not answering my letters and explaining why the information was not provided.”

She pointed out that Belizeans’ only recourse is to the Ombudsman , who  “is not a politically independent person.” The Ombudsman is appointed by the incumbent government of the day, and its power is “limited and to get results quickly from that office is next to none.”

Continuing on the issue of limited or no enforcement for breaches of the FOIA, she pointed out that during the trial even the judge, Justice Oswell Legall, ordered disclosure. “The only things the government provided fully were the contracts and that is how we became aware that from 2009 Gaspar Vega had signed a new contract with Princess, and instead of negotiating better terms for Belize, gave Princess even more privileges.”

The two-day conference had representatives from Grenada, St. Vincent & The Grenadines; Trinidad & Tobago; Guyana; Bahamas; St. Kitts & Nevis; St. Lucia; Antigua, Dominican Republic; Chile; Cayman Islands and Belize.

The Jamaica Environment Trust hosted the conference, and organizations such as the Commonwealth Foundation, UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, and Cayman Island’s Office of the Information Commissioner sponsored the event.

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