A group of 115 participants from 18 countries in the Americas were chosen to participate in a conference in Lima, Peru, this spring (or fall, if you’re south of the equator), held to improve government and private organisation policies on open records. The Journal’s Brent Fuller was among the invitees. First in a two-part series.
Former US President Jimmy Carter hosted the conference through the US democratic think-tank that bears his name, the Carter Center. Carter congratulated several countries during the conference for developing access to information regimes within the past year, and the Cayman Islands made the list.
“Half the countries in our region now have access to information laws,” President Carter said, referring to the Americas and the Caribbean. “A number of these, including Guatemala, Chile, Uruguay and the Cayman Islands went into effect just this year.”
The former president noted that, even outside the Americas, transparency regimes were beginning to gain a foothold.
However, he cautioned more than 100 attendees selected to participate in the conference not to be overly satisfied with their achievements.
“One of the greatest obstacles has been insufficient implementation of (FOI) laws that are on the books,” he said.
That has not been a problem thus far in Cayman, where the government, statutory authorities and government-owned companies are receiving an average of roughly 100 Freedom of Information requests per month.
Cayman’s first FOI Law came into effect on 5, January, 2009.
But use of Freedom of Information, or FOI laws, is still relatively rare in the Caribbean. According to local representatives, Cayman, the Dominican Republic and Jamaica are among the few Caribbean countries to have developed and implemented freedom of information laws.
“There are only six countries in the Caribbean that currently have access to information laws,” said Cayman’s FOI Coordinator Carole Excell, who attended the conference on behalf of the Cayman Islands government.
Excell also warned that the simple enactment of an FOI Law in Cayman would not be the ultimate achievement of transparency in the Islands.
“The public has to be interested,” Excell said. “If no one uses it, why have it?”
Carter Center representative Laura Neuman said in some countries with well-established open records laws, officials were beginning to see “backsliding” – meaning a move toward more secretive regimes that release less information to the public.
“The problem is much less about getting a law passed,” Neuman said. “It’s much more a failure to implement these laws. We’re continuing to see backsliding; even in the United States…we’re facing an on-going fight to stop the over-classification of information.”
The most important problem that we face is broadening the interests,” Neuman said. “We’re continuing to see these laws being used by the few.”
In some cases, the success of FOI laws in various jurisdictions was seen as a problem as governments released information that made bureaucrats or politicians uncomfortable.
“Here in Peru there was a huge scandal when the law obliged congressmen and congresswomen to be honest with regard to their own spending…not only their salaries,” Peruvian Prime Minister Yehude Simon said. “We…modified the law, so that congress was not accountable anymore.”
Even countries with long-established open records traditions, such as Canada, noted problems in the use of those laws of late.
“Increasingly the existence of a law is being used as a barrier to access to information,” said Canadian Newspaper Association Senior VP David Gollob. “What we are seeing is that the government will say ‘no, you have to make a formal access to information request.’”
Simon said he believed open records laws were needed to restore credibility within regional governments.
“If we don’t recover this trust…then let’s not complain later about the social unrest which occurs,” he said.
At the conclusion of the three-day conference in Lima, attendees came up with findings and recommendations that President Carter said he would personally distribute to the leaders of all countries in the Americas, including those that already have freedom of information laws.
“In every instance when I meet with presidents in this region…they know that access to information is a subject I’ll raise with them,” he said.
“I think it would be hard to find a country on Earth now where access to information has not been raised as an issue in some form.”
Among the draft findings/recommendations:
- All countries in the Americas should move further toward open access to information, ideally by establishing right-to-information laws;
- Steps must be taken to protect and enhance freedom of information regimes already in place;
- Once those laws are passed they must be monitored and reviewed to ensure continued effectiveness. Governments should also provide adequate funding and training for FOI efforts;
- Private organisations that have benefited from public funds must increasingly be covered under legal transparency requirements. This includes international financing organisations such as the World Bank;
- Practices of secrecy cause harm to fundamental human rights and that secrecy can be just as harmful when practiced by non-government entities as well as government agencies;
- Internet technology should be used to further the dissemination of information, but simply placing items on a government website should not substitute for meaningful access to information.
Perhaps the most important finding by the Lima conference attendees is that the right to information is a basic human right, similar to the rights to life, liberty and property as defined in both the US constitution and the European Declaration of Human Rights.
“The right of access to information is a fundamental human right, universal, indivisible, interdependent and interrelated with the full range of rights, and necessary for the fight against corruption, improved development, increased security, and good governance…” read the preamble to the Peru conference’s findings.
Cayman enshrined the right to information in its recently revised constitution, the governing agreement with the United Kingdom earlier this year.
Next month read about implications of the FOI laws on business