It was encouraging to say the least, to hear Prime Minister Mia Mottley’s open promise to reporters immediately following her swearing in last Friday that as soon as new integrity legislation is fully enacted, the next item on the legislative agenda of her new Government will be passage of the long awaited Freedom of Information Act (FIA).
This is certainly music to the ears of all media practitioners, especially in the face of constant criticisms that ‘there is no investigative journalism in Barbados’ to speak of, even though public officials are the first to tell us that the issue we are looking into ‘is really none of our business’, even though it clearly is.
Furthermore, there is often no legal recourse for journalists who dare to ask certain questions, or to go poking their noses into the affairs of state. In fact, for the slightest of issues these days our journalists are often hauled over the coals or threatened with one lawsuit or another in the hope that they will permanently recoil from pressing the issue.
The same is true when it comes to access to public documents outside perhaps of the Auditor General report.
We vividly recall one incident in recent memory, which had to do with having access to the will of late Prime Minister David Thompson which mysteriously disappeared from the registry and which, to this day, we still have not been able to get a hold of, despite repeated attempts to do so and amid a CLICO inquiry in which serious public interest questions related to Mr Thompson’s inheritance were raised.
This is why the inability of the previous Government to follow through on its 2008 manifesto promise to enact FoI legislation will go down for us as one of its biggest failures. That along with the failure to bring the Electoral and Boundaries Commission’s rules governing the conduct of media into the 21st century, particularly given the fact that there is more national discourse taking place on social media platforms these days than in any traditional newspaper, radio or television station.
But alas! We will save our discussion on the later issue for another time.
Suffice it to say, that at least 19 countries in Latin America and Caribbean region have adopted freedom of information (FoI) laws within the past two decades in particular.
These are: Antigua and Barbuda (2004); Belize (1994); Brazil (2011); Colombia (1985); Chile (2008); Dominican Republic (2004); Ecuador (2004); El Salvador (2011); Guatemala (2008); Guyana (2013); Honduras (2006); Jamaica (2002); Mexico (2002); Nicaragua (2007); Panama (2002); Peru (2002), St Vincent and the Grenadines (2003) and Trinidad and Tobago (1999). A presidential decree on FOI was also approved in Argentina in 2003.
However, noticeably absent from the list is Barbados, whose officials have been paying lip service to the issue even though the right to freedom of information as part of the right of freedom of expression is recognized in Article 13 of the 1969 American Convention on Human Rights, as well as by the 1994 Declaration of Chapultepec.
At the hemispheric level, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has also approved several principles on Freedom of Expression, which have also been affirmed in recent rulings by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights upholding the right to access to information held by the state without the need for the requester “to prove direct interest or personal involvement in order to obtain it, except in cases in which a legitimate restriction is applied”.
We therefore look forward to Ms Mottley keeping her word by implementing FoI legislation, which, in the spirit of enhancing our democracy, promises to open up the operations of Government to greater scrutiny, not only by the media, but also the average citizen.