KINGSTOWN, St. Vincent – The Dr. Ralph Gonsalves Unity Labour Party (ULP) government boasts of its moving mountains and filling in valleys to build an international airport but has failed to “set up a structure” to operationalise the freedom of information (FOI) laws Parliament passed nine years ago.
“Basically, we have to set up a structure, which we have not done yet,” Gonsalves said Tuesday in explaining why the laws have not come into effect.
He said a Searchlight editorial on May 8 — five days after World Press Freedom Day — “as a reminder, was very useful” but still did not indicate when the laws will come into effect but praised this nation’s press freedom rankings.
The editorial had noted that in 2011, this country was 17th among 196 in the Global Press Freedom Rankings by Freedom House. The country was second only to St. Lucia in the Americas.
The editorial said that St. Vincent and the Grenadines “no doubt” earned the ranking because of its three privately-run independent newspapers, 11 radio stations — many of which have call in programmes — and two privately-run television stations.
The editorial further spoke of easy access to the prime minister, his frequent press conferences, and Internet penetration rates and the concomitant access to new media.
“Despite these gains, we still have much further to go. There is still a reluctance on the part of some public officials to provide information on matters of public interest and the constant threat of litigation encourages self-censorship and discourages investigative reporting,” the editorial, however, said.
“World Press Freedom Day is also a day when governments should be reminded of the need to respect their commitment to press freedom.
“This is, therefore, as good a time as any to call again on our government to operationalise the Freedom of Information Act, which was passed into law since 2003,” it further stated.
But Gonsalves said at his press briefing that one must “always remember there were two laws which were passed simultaneously and they have to be operationalise at the same time”.
The laws were the Freedom of Information Act and the Privacy Act.
“… basically, what happens now with a lot of information being made available to the press, you can have it as a right. … but, under the Freedom of Information Act, you file a notice, you give them enough time, they will give you the information as a legal requirement,” he said.
He added that there are restrictions to the FOI Act “on matters of privacy and, naturally, issues of national security and the like”.
Gonsalves noted the country’s high press freedom ranking according to the reputable international entities but said there was “a slight omission” in the newspaper’s editorial
“… there is a government which is quite sensitive to issues of freedom of the press …” he said.
He further said that while he has successfully sued persons for defamation of character, this does not impinge on press freedom.
“You can’t say on the radio that I thief (stole) money, that I misbehave in public office when it ain’t happen. … that is abuse and I win you every time I go to the court. “So, despite what the NDP (New Democratic Party) says, despite what the critics of the government say, the international observers, regional observers who are unbiased and local ones who are unbiased, they know we have a thriving freedom of the press here…” Gonsalves further stated but did not say when the laws will take effect.