Mon | Dec 11, 2017

Dionne Jackson Miller | Review, reform ATI law

Published:Sunday | August 20, 2017 | 12:00 AMDionne Jackson Miller

It's high time that Government heed the many calls for the long-promised amendments to the Access to Information (ATI) Act to be brought to Parliament, something that has been promised by successive administrations now for years.

The Access to Information Act 2002 was a landmark statute, advancing as it did the aims of transparency and accountability in democratic government. It gives any Jamaican, not just members of the media, a right to ask for government documents in which they have an interest, and, subject to some exceptions (documents said to be exempt, for example, those dealing with national security, law enforcement, Cabinet, etc), provides a regime that is supposed to ensure access to those documents.

Government air-quality reports, public-health reports on water parks, cell phone bills of Cabinet ministers and travel itineraries of prime ministers can be, and have been requested, and provided. But personal records held by Government can also be requested by the individuals involved.

The act has been a powerful tool empowering members of the public seeking to hold Government to account. But the law is not perfect, of course. Legislation rarely is, especially laws that introduce a completely new regime, which the ATI Act did. This is why new laws often contain a provision for them to be reviewed within a certain period.

Section 38 of the ATI Act states that the act "shall be reviewed from time to time by committee of both Houses of Parliament" and went on to state that "the first such review shall be conducted not later than two years after the appointed day."

A review did take place, albeit late. The act came into effect in 2004. It was not until 2008, however, that both Houses of Parliament passed resolutions calling for the establishment of a joint select committee to examine the act and make recommendations arising from the review.

The report from the joint select committee indicates that sittings began in 2009, with 16 meetings held in all, the last of which was held in January 2011.

The committee produced a report recommending a number of amendments. So the letter of the law was followed (albeit late). But the spirit has been violated, as to this day, as the proposed amendments have not been enacted!

 

Important reccomendations

 

The joint committee made some important recommendations, albeit that they could have gone further to improve the act even more. Nevertheless, enactment of those initial recommendations would give us a much better system than we now have.

In fact, 13 years after the law was first passed, it is arguably now time for another review as members of the media and the public have more experience now with how the ATI regime works (and doesn't work!)

Some of the more significant recommendations were:

- The repeal of the Official Secrets Act and replacement by more modern legislation;

- A mandatory review by the prime minister or responsible minister every two years of all exemption certificates and a decision whether it would be in the public interest to release certain documents;

- A review of all exempt documents every 10 years;

- The inclusion of an "overriding public interest test" to be applied before taking a decision whether to release any document currently listed as exempt from access, instead of the current blanket refusal of access;

- Publication of decisions of the Appeals Tribunal;

- The revision of other pieces of legislation with non-disclosure provisions so that they conform with the ATI Act;

- Transformation of the ATI unit into a statutory body.

There were also several recommendations aimed at making it easier for members of the public to use the ATI regime, such as:

- Acknowledgement of applications within five business days.

- Provision of a customer service evaluation form to help assess whether ATI officers were adequately fulfilling their roles, should receive further training or should be removed from the post.

The Press Association of Jamaica has, on several occasions, urged the Government to take these promised amendments to Parliament.

We are now renewing that call. We're not waiting for a special day, week or month to follow up this issue.

Jamaica has been one of the leaders in the region in enacting this important law. However, the next significant step, which successive administrations have repeatedly neglected to take, is to ensure that through review and amendments, the Access to Information Act continues to serve the interests of democracy and the people of Jamaica in the best possible way. The Government needs to take that step.

- Dionne Jackson Miller is president of the Press Association of Jamaica. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.