FOI Law: Open records, closed Cabinet

The following information is not subject to public disclosure: what the Cayman Islands Cabinet talks about; what members say; and what decisions they make.

So determined Information Commissioner Jan Liebaers in a recent ruling that draws a clear line where the Freedom of Information Law ceases to hold sway over government records.

While acknowledging that Cayman’s FOI Law cannot compel Cabinet to publish substantive sections of meeting minutes, Mr. Liebaers added that nothing in the FOI Law prevents it from doing so, either.

He said: “In my opinion, voluntary disclosure is particularly appropriate where a matter of great public interest is concerned, such as many of the matters discussed and decided by the Cabinet. Although obvious progress has been made, I have raised the point on a number of occasions, that the government ought to do more to publish information proactively, both because doing so would ensure better communications and improve understanding of government, and also because it would reduce the need for the general public to utilize the formal, and sometimes slow, FOI process to gain access to significant information.”

What Mr. Liebaers’s ruling does, essentially, is to place squarely on the shoulders of Cabinet the responsibility for explaining its activities to the public.

No one can force Cabinet to reveal anything (other than certain factual reports members have considered) under the FOI Law, putting government in complete control of fashioning its own message.

As we’ve seen with records related to Operation Tempura, public officials will never give up power or negative information about themselves willingly. For working journalists, even the best-written FOI Law should be viewed as just one reportorial tool to get at the root of things. It should never replace the cultivation of sources, tough questioning and dogged research and investigating.

While the FOI Law and the related National Archives and Public Records Law are important statutes, the danger with open records laws is that they can give an illusion of openness or transparency when, in fact, the exact opposite is the case.

The situation delineated by Mr. Liebaers where Cabinet decides what it will or won’t tell the public, is potentially perilous — not necessarily to the media — but to governments themselves that are exceptionally poor at communicating with their constituents.

Instead of holding regular unscripted press conferences, this government seems to be relying increasingly on the state-owned media triumvirate of Radio Cayman, Government Information Services and CIG-TV, which Premier Alden McLaughlin stated are soon to be merged into one unit with responsibility for “the dissemination of government information and messages” — and whose credibility, accordingly, should be severely discounted by their audiences.

Perhaps the government will follow Mr. Liebaers’s non-binding advice (and the example set by Premier McLaughlin in the disclosure of his official credit card and travel expenses) and choose to release information about the many matters “of great public interest” that go before Cabinet.

Here’s one thing you can count on: If elected members don’t trust their constituents to share what they are actually doing behind closed Cabinet doors, they then expose themselves to voters drawing their own conclusions when they go behind closed doors at the polling booths in 2017.

1 COMMENT

  1. This is stupid. The government is elected to do a job. They need to have the authority and discretion to do it, without having every word uttered at a cabinet meeting second-guessed.

    Of course, this level of disclosure would benefit the Compass, which needs something to write about, and which would love the opportunity to hold people’s feet to the fire over every statement made. But what’s good for the Compass is not what’s good for the functionality of the system.

    I don’t know of any major government that publishes the minutes of cabinet meetings. It is nonsensical to ask for that, and clearly motivated by your own selfish needs.

    As for the voters, they should be voting based on results of what the government has or has-not done, not on what is said during cabinet meetings. Again, this is a red herring, designed to threaten and scare the government into complying with an agenda that only serves the Compass.

  2. Once again, the Cayman Compass is not seeking any benefit for the public but for itself.

    It is a rule of many countries who maintain a Cabinet system that the discussions that go on do so behind closed doors and unreported. Only once a consensus has been reached does their position become clear. If the disagreements were to be public, this would undermine the system and would not be on benefit to the Caymanian people. This is especially true where the major press outlet is unregulated and where their editorials, it seems, are more important than reporting the news in an unbiased, responsible and accurate way.

    It is not these private disagreements that will be at the forefront of the minds of the voters at the next election but the record of the Government it what it does. What worries me is that this particular newspaper will pursue an agenda of its own making and will seek to influence voters for its own ends. That is dangerous.

    Oh, BTW: don’t expect any apology for saying the press in cayman is unregulated. Like the Governor, I am making a statement of fact and share some surprise that her boss feels the need to apologise for saying something that is true.

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