“…Trinidad and Tobago maintains that the principles of open government-accountability, transparency and citizen participation are essential for effective democratic governance…In the execution of good governance, efforts are currently underway to increase the availability of information about governmental activities, support civic participation, implement the highest standards of professional integrity throughout the administration and increase access to new technologies for openness and accountability…”
—These extracts are from the T&T official statement on the Open Government Partnership, which this country joined in 2013.
The ongoing Information War is increasingly driven by the Freedom of Information Act (FoIA), which in 1999 created the right to obtain information held by Public Authorities, subject to certain limitations as to State security and private or commercial information.
The relationship between a bank and its customers is a useful analogy to understand these principles. The customer depositing money into her account does so for safekeeping and to earn some small interest. Although the bank is responsible for that money, at no point in time is it the property of the bank – indeed, it is a liability in the bank’s accounts. The bank merely has custody of that money and must follow the customer’s lawful instructions as to how that money is dealt with.
The FoIA at S.4 defines ‘official documents’ held by Public Authorities as – “…a document is held by a public authority if it is in its possession, custody or power…”.
The Privy Council ruled on 20th May 2019 in favour of well-known UNC activist, Ravi Balgobin Maharaj, who was seeking leave to file a judicial review of the refusal of Petrotrin to release two witness statements made in intended legal action against a former Board of Directors. That was a PNM-appointed Board, chaired by the late Malcolm Jones, and the intended US$97M legal action was in respect of alleged negligence in Petrotrin’s large-scale investment in the Gas to Liquids project. That legal action was stopped during the term of the current PNM administration, so the air was rife with allegations and denials.
At the post-Cabinet press briefing on 23 May 2019, PM Rowley made a commitment to have refusals of FoIA requests by Public Authorities subject to vetting by the Attorney General so as to reduce ‘unnecessary liabilities’, in terms of legal costs, on the State. Dr Rowley made two further important statements –
- A general principle – “…Because outside of national security matters and matters of the Cabinet…there are few other matters on the government files, that should really be secret…”
- In relation to the Petrotrin matter, on which the Privy Council had just ruled – “…I am instructing the Minister of Energy to use the authority that he has under the Constitution to instruct Petrotrin to make the two witness statements, the same thing that went to the Privy Council, that they (the UNC) claim is the smoking gun, available and public, so that the public can read them and determine whether Malcolm Jones can rest in peace…”
The FoIA judicial review against Petrotrin has now been reportedly re-filed, since those two witness statements have not been released –
“…Maharaj said Rowley and Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi have both said there is nothing incriminating or conspiratorial in the witness statements. He questioned why the statements have not been released. Maharaj also claimed the law firm representing Petrotrin, JD Sellier and Company, refused to accept service of the claim. He alleged the firm said it had no instructions on the matter.
As such, Maharaj said he now has to serve the FoIA claim directly on Petrotrin…”
While the PM’s statements on the application of the FoIA are welcome, I am aware of a cosy consensus across the so-called political divide. Let me explain.
Under S.40 of the FoIA –
“…40. (1) The Minister shall, as soon as practicable after the end of each year, prepare a report on the operation of this Act during that year and cause a copy of the report to be laid before each House of the Parliament…”
That Report was a valuable examination of the operation of the FoIA, but the last such Report was laid in Parliament in 2010. Since 2010, we have had no official Report on this important aspect of our rights as citizens, but it does not seem to have disturbed either political camp. I am subject to correction, but no protest or strong statement on that breach of the law comes to mind.
More particularly, the Invaders’ Bay matter was an action by the JCC to disclose the legal advice relied upon by the Minister of Planning and Development in relation to the proposed large-scale development of public property at Invaders’ Bay in POS. In that case, the State lost at both the High Court and Appeal Court stages, with no further action taken to file an appeal to the Privy Council. Indeed, para 38 of that Privy Council ruling on the Petrotrin FoIA matter refers to that Invaders’ Bay ruling as “…the leading decision of the Court of Appeal…”. Yet that Court of Appeal ruling that those legal advices be published remains unenforced. Of course, it is entirely unrealistic to expect that the UNC would ever protest that failure or refusal to satisfy the Court of Appeal ruling, since the illegal decision to refuse disclosure was made during its term in office as the Peoples Partnership.
That is the cosy consensus which binds us, in this Information Age.