Prime Minister Simpson Miller’s predecessor P.J. Patterson took the important and welcome step of supporting the passage of the Access to Information Act against the background of years of agitation from civic action groups and the media for its enactment.
This was an important progressive move given the ingrained culture in the public service, in which civil servants often hid behind the Official Secrets Act to refrain from commenting on or making available even the most innocuous of information relating to the activities of public officials and ministries.
Now Mrs. Simpson Miller seems more committed to reversing the clock than in advancing the work started by her predecessor. This was evident in her admonition to public sector employees in ministries and agencies under her portfolio at a meeting last Friday, that notwithstanding the ATI Act, they should remember that there is an Official Secrets Act which they should respect.
The tone and content of Mrs. Simpson Millers address to the public servants, as reported in The Sunday Gleaner, suggest that she is more comfortable with the provisions of the previous law than the changes that have been made. Also, she seems unaware that the ATI does not provide blanket cover for public servants to make available information that would compromise national security; nor does it sanction publication of personal information that has nothing to do with the public interest. As a general practice, this newspaper has abided by the official guidelines under the ATI in seeking information through the designated government officers about matters of public interest. While Mrs. Simpson Millers concerns seem more about the political ammunition that her opponents might obtain through leaked information, we are concerned that any retreat under the cloak of the Official Secrets Act would be a retrograde step.
Her comments have, however, served to underscore the importance of the call by Senator Trevor Munroe for the repeal of the Official Secrets Act. The existence of the two pieces of legislation helps to create confusion – one must supersede the other or render the other redundant. The Official Secrets Act must be repealed forthwith.
In the case cited by the Prime Minister, of an Opposition Member of Parliament being indiscreet, and perhaps malicious, in referring to the indebtedness of a member of her Government, there are avenues of censure available to the Parliament which can be considered.
Of equal concern to us too, is the suggestion from the Prime Minister that her Finance Minister and Security Minister, among others, have intelligence on persons who may be guilty of not paying their taxes or may be involved in some other illegal activities, but which information they are carrying around in their heads. We would expect that such information is not for the private voyeuristic pleasure of the ministers and the Prime Minister. Rather, where there is evidence of illegality, then the law must be allowed to take its course, no matter who is involved. Where there is selective enforcing of the law, then the Government undermines its own moral authority to govern. Is it possible that Government ministers are unable to act in accordance with the law because persons close to the Government are themselves compromised?