FOIA forum begins

Attorney General Carl Bethel speaks to the press after the official opening of the Freedom of Information Act forum.

Members of the public sector and civil society groups will gather over the next several days to participate in rigorous training to prepare for the full implementation of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis opened the forum’s official launch Monday morning at the Royal Bahamas Police Force (RBPF) headquarters.

The sessions are expected to promote greater transparency and accountability. It is also hoped to facilitate greater public participation in government’s decision-making processes.

“The FOIA will be brought into effect in phases, in order to ensure that all the preparatory work, and training, that is necessary to fully implement the regime, is in place. This will better ensure the effectiveness of the regime,” said the prime minister.

Chief Technical Officer in Office of the Prime Minister in Jamaica, Damian Cox, will facilitate this week’s training forum.

Cox was involved in the implementation of Jamaica’s Access to Information Act, which is equivalent to The Bahamas’ FOIA.

“Freedom of information or the right to access information is considered an essential component of a modern democracy. The act is intended to ensure general public access to government information,” said Dr. Minnis.

According to the prime minister, an information commissioner will be appointed to establish and oversee a Freedom of Information Unit.

This person will be appointed by the Governor-General following the recommendation of the prime minister, after consultation with the Leader of the Opposition Progressive Liberal Party (PLP).

Once appointed, the information commissioner must ensure that training is provided for information unit’s officials regarding the right to information, and the effective implementation of the FOIA provisions.

“It is crucial to note that the information commissioner will have the overall responsibility for the freedom of information regime. The commissioner will be required to monitor public authorities to ensure that they are complying with the act and also oversee the recruitment of staff, which will include one or more deputy information commissioners, and assistant information commissioners,” shared the prime minister.

While the government seeks to provide unrestricted access to information, the prime minister noted that the act will have a number of safeguards for the protection of an individual’s sensitive personal data.

“The act ensures the protection of national security matters, legal privilege and certain government communications. With the exception of these carve outs or exemptions, the act provides the public wide access to records,” he said.

Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) Chairman Fred Mitchell told Eyewitness News Sunday that he is concerned about the cost that will be attached to implementing the FOIA.

To this end, the government is expected to provide figures attached to funding for the implementation of the FOIA, with Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Peter Turnquest set to provide that information during the next fiscal budget.