Premier lashes out against media, FOI
Premier McKeeva Bush lashed out
against elements of the media and the Freedom of Information Law during a press
conference last Thursday and threatened to impose a six-figure licence fee on
Responding to an FOI request
submitted by Cayman News Service about his travel since last year, Mr. Bush
said answering the question had taken civil servants “many hours to compile.”
“The information was not readily
available and required the involvement of different ministries and portfolios,”
Mr. Bush said he had no problem
with transparency and accountability.
“But the truth is, the FOI Law,
while purporting to ensure transparency and accountability, costs the country a
lot, especially as it ties up civil servants who are required to work under
this law responding to requests which can literally come from Mickey Mouse,” he
said. “So, instead of doing business and helping turn this economy around,
people have to be writing back to Mr. Mickey Mouse. And they call this progress.
If Mr. Mickey Mouse sends in a request, by law civil servants must answer.
“Clearly, this cannot be what was
intended by this law.”
Mr. Bush said the FOI request from
Cayman News Service requested to know which countries he had visited as leader
of government business and premier; the dates he had visited the countries; the
purpose of the visits; and who accompanied him on each trip.
“Tell me what good is this question?
Everyone knows that I have to travel.”
Mr. Bush said he answered the
question publicly so that all could hear his answer, and not “spin on CNS.”
He said that in the next budget,
which is expected by the end of the month, “those businesses, blogs and such,
are going to have to pay a good, good fee,” which he said would be more than
$100,000. He said newspapers printed
overseas for local distribution would also be subject to a hefty fee. Businesses that did not pay the fee would be
subject to daily fines and up to three months jail time, he added.
Two news organisations – Cayman
News Service and Cayman Net News, the latter which he referred to as Cayman Not
News – were criticised by Mr. Bush. He
took issue with Cayman Net News for publishing “personal things about one of
our members” which he said were inaccurate, and which were then reprinted in
the United States. Although he said he didn’t have time to read
Cayman News Service, he said he had been told an anonymous blog commenter had
accused politicians of being paid in the back pockets in relation to the new
hospital project proposed by Dr. Devi Shetty.
Mr. Bush said that media members
who published such things “don’t mean Cayman any good and do not love this country”.
“They are going to pay to operate
in this country,” he said. “If they are going to slander and cause more work
for civil servants, they are going to pay. And I don’t mean $10.”
Information Commissioner Jennifer
Dilbert issued a statement Friday in response to Mr. Bush’s comments on the
Freedom of Information Law.
She acknowledged that a person does
not have to identify themselves when making an FOI request.
“The reasoning behind this is that
a person can request a record and be free from any negative repercussions that
might occur as a result of being identified as the person asking for a record,”
she said. “Many other countries allow anonymous requests and in a country as
small as the Cayman Islands, the ability to
remain anonymous may be indispensable.
Also, the Law does not permit the public authority to ask for a reason
or rationale behind the request which further ensures that records are released
completely and uncensored.”
Mrs. Dilbert also recognised that a
potential side effect of anonymity was that “frivolous or vexatious requests”
may more easily be made.
“To counteract this, the FOI Law
sets out an exemption under section 9 where a public authority may not be
required to comply with a request if that request is found to be vexatious, or
where it would unreasonably divert the resources of the department to respond
She said the exemption had been
used only three times in the first year of operation of the FOI Law, which
indicated that public authorities were not misusing the exemption.
“In my opinion, and as the Law is
still new to our Islands, the benefits of
anonymity outweigh any inconveniences a public authority may face.”
Mrs. Dilbert reiterated that in
order for the Cayman Islands to benefit from
the FOI regime, responsibility must exist on three levels.
“I agree with the premier that the
public must exercise discretion and make reasonable requests that serve some
good purpose and not waste the time of public servants,” she said. “They should
also try to become familiar with their rights and the proper procedures so that
they get the responses that they are entitled to. Second, the press should use the information
that they obtain in a responsible manner. Finally, public authorities, the
government and the civil service must be prepared to operate in an open and
transparent manner, and to fulfil the requirements and meet their obligations
under the FOI Law.”
Opposition Member Alden McLaughlin
said he was worried that Mr. Bush was basically saying he wanted to get rid of
the FOI Law.
“As a member of the administration
that ushered in the atmosphere of openness and transparency, my party and I in
particular would see that as a big step backwards,” he said. “We don’t want to
allow a retreat from this new era.”