Joint Select Committee for ATI Review hears submission from the MAJ

The Joint Select Committee for the Review of the Access to Information Act reconvened on September 17, 2009 to hear submissions on the review of the ATI Act 2002. In its previous meeting on June 30, the Committee heard the submission of the Access to Information Advisory Stakeholders Committee.

Committee members in attendance were Chairman, Hon. Daryl Vaz - Minister without Portfolio in the Office of the Prime Minister with responsibility for Information and Telecommunications, Sen. Sandrea Falconer, Sen. the Hon. Dr. Ronald Robinson, Sen. Basil Waite and Mrs. Marisa Dalrymple-Philibert

Also in attendance were representatives from the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel, Attorney General’s Chamber, the Legal and Regulatory Department of the Office of the Prime Minister, Information and Telecommunications Department – Office of the Prime Minister, the Government Archivist, Access to Information Unit, the Access to Information Association of Administrators, and representatives from the Media Association of Jamaica.

The meeting proceeded with the confirmation of the minutes of the June 30 meeting, opening remarks, presentation by the Media Association of Jamaica, discussions on the presentation and meeting schedule for the committee going forward, any other business and the date for the next meeting.

Minister Vaz welcomed everyone, particularly, the technical team, the representatives of the Media Association of Jamaica and the public. He then advised the Committee that Mrs. Carole Excell, FOI Coordinator, Cayman Islands, had another engagement and would not be able to make her presentation at the meeting.

Following the Chairman’s invitation, Ms. Tanya Burke, Attorney-at-law, the Jamaica Observer, made the submission on behalf of the Media Association of Jamaica.

Among the issues raised and recommendations put forward by Ms. Burke on behalf of the MAJ were those pertaining to:

  • unreasonable denial by public authorities;
  • inordinate delays;
  • matters relating to the role and functions of access officers;
  • limited categories of documents accessible under the Act;
  • expense involved in the tribunal appeal process;
  • absence of ‘whistle-blower’ protection;
  • inadequate sanctions for breaching the provisions of the Act and
  • mandatory reporting and recording of all requests received by access officers.

Inordinate Delays

Ms. Burke acknowledged the importance of the media being able to access information through the Act. However, she noted that they had experienced a number of challenges in doing so, including the non-response by public officers to applications made under the Act, inordinate delays and unreasonable denial by public authorities. According to her, the limited categories of documents accessible under the Act, the cost of obtaining documents, the absence of whistle-blower legislation and inadequate sanctions also posed challenges.

Ms. Burke also insisted that public authorities were in violation of section 7(4) of the ATI Act which stipulated that a public authority should respond no later than 30 days following the receipt of an application and in cases, applicants had to wait months without getting a response. The MAJ representative cited as an example, a request by the Jamaica Observer Limited to a government Ministry in December 2007, to which they got no response until January 2008.

According to Ms. Burke, the decision by the Ministry to grant partial access to the requested information caused the Observer to apply for an internal review. In brief, the Ministry did not acknowledge receipt of that application until March 2008 and it was not until April 2009 that the Observer first received any of the requested documents. Ms. Burke expressed the view that by not promptly responding to the applications, public authorities created the perception that they had little regard for the provisions of the Act.

The group recommended that sanctions be imposed in cases where applicants complained that public officials or access officers failed to respond to applications in the required time period. The Committee was then informed that the MAJ was in support of Items in the Guidelines on Discharge of Functions Under the Access to Information Act that indicate that ATI obligations should form part of performance evaluations and the legal and policy requirements which mandate each public entity to appoint a responsible officer for access to information. Access to Information policy and recommended practices in this area were fully supported.

Access Officers

Ms. Burke also recommended provisions, enforced by law, for persons to act where access officer are on leave for a period exceeding 30 days. She also opined that applicants should be provided with a ‘performance evaluation questionnaire,’ available both on entity websites and in offices – going on to say how the forms should be treated and assessed.

Ms. Burke also suggested that the regulations be amended to ensure that access officers would be certified and receive ongoing training as well as an additional member of staff. It was further proposed that the regulations be amended to ensure that access officers would be required to respond to queries concerning outstanding applications within 5 business days of receipt.

Ms. Burke singled out media practitioners and human rights groups, for special treatment to receive the information no later than 48 hours after application, to facilitate carrying out of their jobs. The same she said should apply to individuals whose lives and liberties were at stake.

In concluding, Ms. Burke stated that while journalists have a responsibility to practice responsible journalism, it was important that they have access to information to keep the public informed. She added that unreasonable denial of access to information undermined both the spirit of the legislation and efforts to improve the standard of journalism.

After thanking the MAJ for what he described as a comprehensive presentation, a thorough discussion ensued between the committee members and the MAJ representative, with members presenting recommendations and seeking clarification on matters presented.

The Chairman thanked the MAJ for their presentation once more and reminded the Committee that they had agreed to a set timelines in order to complete the review process.

The next meeting is scheduled for October 29, 2009 at 10:00 a.m.

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