November 4, 2016
Government to replace Freedom of Information Act with new legislation

St Vincent and the Grenadines will not proclaim the 2003 Freedom of Information Act, but will instead pass a new act.

Minister of Information and Technology Camillo Gonsalves, responding to a question posed by Opposition Senator Marcia Barnwell during last week’s sitting of the House of Assembly, said this decision was taken because of changing times and efforts to harmonize regional legislation in the area of Freedom of Information and Privacy.{{more}}

Gonsalves said the Government’s intention not to proclaim the 2003 Act, but to pass a new Freedom of Information Act, was indicated in the Estimates of Revenue and Expenditure and their result indicators.

The Minister said this decision was arrived at because the OECS’ harmonized legislation has been supplanted by the CARICOM-wide efforts of the HIPCAR project, whose full slate of legislation is in the process of being enacted.

HIPCAR was designed to support Caribbean countries in improving their competitiveness by harmonizing approaches to ICT policies, legislation and regulatory procedures.

“The suite of HIPCAR legislation includes both a harmonized Freedom of Information Bill and a Data Protection and Privacy Bill,” Gonsalves explained.

He noted that substantially finalized versions of the suite of legislation have since been received by the Ministry of Legal Affairs.

“The suite of legislation…contains the following: Electronic Evidence Bill; The Electronic Transaction Bill; the Electronic Funds Transfer Bill; The Electronic Fine Bill; The Electronic Crimes Bill, what we call the Cyber Crime Bill; The Data Protection and Privacy Bill and the Freedom of Information [Bill],” he explained.

“Our ministry is committed to expeditiously enacting and implementing the entire suite of legislation that includes the Freedom of Information Act,” he said.

Gonsalves said that six CARICOM countries to date have enacted Freedom of Information Acts and SVG’s 2003 Act has the lowest ranking in the category of right to access, appeals and sanctions.

“Part of this is not really a deficiency; it’s simply due to the evolution of standards since in the intervening period during 2003. We have no doubt that an act that will come before this honourable House emerging out of the HIPCAR process will not only have the advantage of regional harmony, but also modernity.”

He noted that it is important also to consider the critical interplay and relationship of freedom of information laws and privacy laws.

“While the presence or absence of adequate Freedom of Information laws understandably receive a great deal of scrutiny and advocacy from the media and to some extent from the Opposition, the rights to this information must be balanced at all times against the right to privacy, particularly individual privacy and the protection of data that the state collects and transmits regarding individual citizens and other official secrets.”

Gonsalves further noted that this relationship is so fundamental that many countries choose not to pass separate freedom of information and privacy laws, but instead pass a single law which covers with both issues.

“We are committed to meeting our treaty obligations in regards to freedom of information and the protection of privacy and we are committed to the dictates of good governance. We know that we do very well regionally in terms of freedom of the press. In terms of information disbursements, we try our best to keep this country informed of what we are doing and we will do our best to implement in a very expeditious manner the very important Freedom of Information Legislation coming out of the HIPCAR process which we received in 2013,” Gonsalves said.

He said there are other examples where national legislative work and regional efforts do not sync perfectly, such as the 1999 Fair Competition Act Chapter 160, which has not been proclaimed.

Gonsalves said in that case, the Government awaits “the lengthy and circuitous regional debate about whether or not to establish a CARICOM wide, or OECS wide or some other structure of a Fair Competition Body.” (CM)