Today’s Editorial August 08: Open FOI process to public, press

We applaud Cayman Islands politicians for drawing up a proposed Freedom of Information Law, which should allow public access to certain government records.

But we’re not too keen on the process employed to achieve a law that frees up government information.

Government should not start off an effort designed to give people greater access to information than ever before by holding closed-door meetings attended by a select few who will decide the specifics of how FOI will be administered.

Presumably, this bill will be passed by the Legislative Assembly at its next meeting.

After that, the plan is to hold meetings of the FOI Steering Committee at least once a month with the idea of educating government departments on how to handle requests for information.

This process is expected to take 18 months and it’s anticipated the FOI Law will come into effect in early 2009.

We’re willing to concede that the government actually needs that time to train its people, although January 2009 will be more than three years since the first FOI proposal was tabled.

We’re also willing to accept that the committee will have virtually no effect on the Law itself, which again will have been passed by the Legislature before the group does most of its work.

However, the committee will have significant impact on the FOI regulations, which include details about government information managers, how information is to be published, and the fees charged for open records requests.

The regulations will also formulate the crucial definition of ‘public interest’, which will be a key factor in deciding whether certain information is released to the public.

The committee meetings are not open to the public. No members of non-governmental press entities or even representatives of private media organisations outside of Cayman are part of this committee. There will be minutes of meetings published on-line and an e-mail address for comments, but this, in our opinion, is part of the problem.

The government is essentially telling the press, and the general public, that a 16-person committee will decide for them exactly how transparent or non-transparent these FOI regulations will be. The public should wait upon notes, likely edited by Government Information Services spokespeople, to determine their fate. If they don’t like it then they can send an e-mail.

That’s not enough.

The Cayman Islands needs a good, thorough Freedom of Information Law that makes government more transparent to the people who determine the outcomes of elections – the public – and the media houses that keep voters informed.

What we don’t need is a cumbersome law that makes access to government information more difficult and costly.

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