Freedom of Information Legislation Finally Makes its way into the National Assembly
The government has tabled long overdue piece of legislation that makes access to information a legal right. Called the Access to Information Bill 2011, the legislation extends the right of members of the public to access information in the possession of public authorities. The intention is to appoint a Commissioner of Information who will oversee its implementation.
The Bill provides the right of all Guyanese or persons domiciled in Guyana to obtain access to an official document. The Bill sets out a regime of right to information for persons to secure access to information under the control of public authorities in order to promote transparency and accountability in the working of the government and public authorities.
The Bill is in accord with Article 146 of the Constitution and Article 19 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. The Bill suggests that public authorities have the onus to maintain all their records duly catalogued, classified and indexed in a manner and form which facilitates the right to access to information.
In the explanatory memorandum of the bill, the government stated that the right to freedom of information is increasingly accepted as a necessary aspect of participatory democracies. The government stated that the right to information stems from the concept of open and transparent government and freedom of information may be viewed as capable of advancing a number of desirable objectives in the society.
According to the memorandum, the right to freedom of information helps to make government more accountable and acts as a weapon in the fight against corruption and contributes to improving the quality of official decision making. The Bill also sets out what information the public would not have access to.
These include the official record of meetings and decisions of Cabinet. That could only be accessed after 20 years. The Bill defines an exempt document as one which contains information if disclosed would be likely to prejudice the defense of Guyana or any of its allies; would lead to actions preventing the suppression of subversive or hostile activities In addition, an exempt document would be one which contains information that if disclosed would prejudice the lawful activities of the disciplined forces.
The Bill also sets out penalties for the destruction of official documents. A person, who willfully destroys or damages a document which should have been preserved, would be liable to a fine of $300, 000 and imprisonment for six months.
The Bill also proposes that someone who destroys information which was requested is liable on conviction to one year imprisonment. It is also proposed that someone who is in unlawful possession of an exempt document to be liable to a fine of $300, 000 and imprisonment for six months. The Bill was read for a first time and was sent to a special select committee where it would be deliberated and brought back to the National Assembly for debate and passage in the House.