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EDITORIAL - Chilling clause in credit bureau bill

Published:Friday | March 5, 2010 | 12:00 AM

About a month ago, the House of Representatives passed a bill setting out the framework for the establishment and policing of credit bureaux in Jamaica.

That piece of legislation will soon be debated by the Senate, beginning, perhaps, as early as today. If that is so, we urge the administration to suspend the deliberations to allow for further reflection on some of its clauses before they become law.

For the fact is, there is, in this proposed legislation, at least one provision that this newspaper insists is not only dangerous, but counter to Prime Minister Bruce Golding's declared commitment to openness and transparency in public affairs and, tangentially, the expansion of a free press.

We refer to specifically to Section 13 (5) of the bill. It says: "A person who knowingly receives, uses or discloses credit information obtained by any person in contravention of this act commits an offence."

For a breach under this section, the offender, on conviction before a resident magistrate, could be fined up to $2 million, be jailed for up to a year, or be subject to both penalties.

The provision, as laid out in the bill, appears, on the face of it, benign and uncontroversial. After all, the argument will go, the aim is to protect the confidentiality of the financial information that credit bureaux will gather on people.

Indeed, the bill explicitly imposes such confidentiality on the directors and employees, past and present, of such institutions who, because of their office, would have access to such information. That is as it should be.

There is, however, grave danger in extending this circumscription beyond the space occupied by those who - for good order and good management - have a clear responsibility and interest in the maintenance of such confidentiality, and into the public sphere. Indeed, as the law is now framed, merely receiving such 'confidential' information would be an offence, no matter the source.

Logical conclusion

Taken to its logical conclusion, a journalist or editor who received information compiled by a credit bureau about, say, a Cabinet minister who had failed to pay his debts and therefore had a bad credit report could be hurled into jail for a year, fined $2 million, or slammed with both.That cannot be in the public's interest, as the former People's National Party administration was forced to concede a decade ago when Parliament last tried to write into law similar draconian measures that held deleterious implications for a free press. Then, it was a clause in the Corruption Prevention Act, which was eventually defeated through agitation by the press. In that case, the onus of confidentiality was left squarely where it belonged - with those who have the responsibility for the administration of the Corruption Prevention Commission.

Were this clause to survive in the Credit Reporting Act, it would have a chilling effect on the press and its ability to meet its obligation as a societal watchdog for good governance. Its concern, in this case, would not be the truth of the information it revealed in the public's interest, but whether editors and reporters would be carted off to jail and/or forced to pay unaffordable fines for telling the truth.

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