A Caymanian Compass news story from December 2010 that caused considerable uproar among lawmakers and which led to calls for the newspaper to face criminal prosecution was apparently much ado about nothing.
The minutes of a government subcommittee meeting have now confirmed what the newspaper reported about the ongoing review of the country’s Freedom of Information Law at that time.
On 9 December, 2010, the front-page editions of the Caymanian Compass carried a story ‘Closed-door FOI review set’ that read, in its second paragraph: “A six-member Legislative Assembly subcommittee is scheduled to begin meeting ‘in camera’ – privately – this month to review Cayman’s Freedom of Information Law.”
In May 2013, two-and-a-half years later, a report on the discussions of that subcommittee was made public stating: “The subcommittee confirmed in its meeting of 21 February, 2011, that meetings would be held in private in accordance with the provisions of Standing Order 72 (5).”
Minutes and reports of the subcommittee and a committee of the entire Legislative Assembly formed to review the country’s open records law were released by the outgoing interim government in May.
They reveal that a call for public participation in the review of the country’s first open records law was not made until after a Freedom of Information request by the Caymanian Compass sought the minutes and records of the subcommittee hearings.
According to the minutes of the subcommittee meeting held on 21 February, 2011: “The acting chair … advised that the purpose of the meeting was to discuss the FOI request from … the Caymanian Compass, which stated as follows: ‘Please provide copies of all minutes of the meeting[s] of the FOI subcommittee of the house of assembly, chaired by the attorney general, Hon. Sam Bulgin. Please also provide any reports issued by this committee regarding the FOI Law, regulations or process in the Cayman Islands’.
“The committee also needed to discuss whether the public should be allowed to give submission on the amendment/reform of the FOI Law,” according to the meeting minutes.
It was agreed later on in the same meeting that an invitation to the public to send general written submissions concerning the review of the FOI Law would be put out through local media outlets. The Compass’ open records request was delayed until the tabling of the minutes and committee reports in the Legislative Assembly, which wouldn’t occur for more than two years afterward.
Following the initial story’s publication on 9 December, 2010, the first time the Cayman Islands general public was made aware of the existence of the FOI subcommittee, then-House Speaker Mary Lawrence said she was “appalled” to read the article that “impugned the integrity of the members of the Legislative Assembly”. In addition, Mrs. Lawrence comments referred to an editorial the newspaper had written about the situation with Wikileaks and its founder Julian Assange leaking documents on his website, which the Compass wrote about in the context of FOI.
Subsequent reviews of the matter by the attorney general’s office and the Cayman Islands Human Rights Commission have revealed no evidence the newspaper broke any law or “impugned the integrity” of assembly members. No charges were ever brought against the newspaper or any staff members. Calls from international human rights groups, attorneys and press associations around the world for the former speaker to uphold press freedom in a letter sent to her on 22 December, 2010, went unanswered.
Caymanian Compass editor Tammie C. Chisholm noted in 2010 that legislators apparently objected to the word “secret”, used in a jump page headline on the story.
“Whether we used the word ‘secret’ or the phrases ‘in camera’ or ‘behind closed doors’ it all means the same thing,” Mrs. Chisholm said. “We stand by what was written.”
Moreover, some lawmakers objected to Information Commissioner Jennifer Dilbert’s comment in the 9 December, 2010, story that she expected to be “front and centre” in leading the review of the FOI Law and the work of the committee.
Well she might have, following these comments by then-Premier McKeeva Bush in June 2010: “As the information commissioner has been closely involved with the practical application of the law and is therefore best able to assist the committee, I have asked the information commissioner, Mrs. Dilbert, to assist in leading this review.”
However, the minutes of the subcommittee meetings show Mrs. Dilbert’s office was rarely invited to the subcommittee’s meetings, while a representative from the attorney general’s office was often in attendance.