Jamaica News: Director at the Access to Information Unit, Damian Cox, has emphasised the importance of the entity’s work and the Access to Information (ATI) Act in improving accountability and transparency in Jamaica by keeping citizens informed about national matters.
“The Act is important because it [enables] citizens to know exactly what the Government is doing and to access official documents, verify decisions on matters of social and national interest, as also matters that concern the finances of the country, health and environment,” he said during a Jamaica Information Service (JIS) Think Tank at the agency’s head office in Kingston on December 19.
The legislation affords persons the legal right to access all copies of official documents held by government bodies such as ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs); statutory entities; Parish Councils; and State companies, except those exempt from disclosure.
Official documents are retained in the possession, custody or control of government bodies with whose functions they are connected.
The contents of exempt documents relate to deliberate processes of the Government and Cabinet; matters of national security, international relations and personal privacy; and subjects linked to legal professional privilege.
Mr. Cox further explained that consequent on the Act’s passage in 2002 and implementation in 2004, the framework has been created that safeguards the right of citizens and other members of the public to access official government documents.
“So the whole purpose of the Act is to improve accountability, public participation and transparency within government so that members of the public who have general right of legal access to official documents, can hold their government accountable for how they perform and spend taxpayers’ money,” he added.
The Director further explained that the ATI Unit is mandated to monitor the implementation and application of the Act’s provisions across all government entities.
The Unit’s primary functions include providing guidance and training for MDAs on how to interpret and administer the Act, identifying and addressing challenging or problematic issues arising from the Act’s implementation, monitoring compliance with the Act’s stipulations, and educating the public on their rights and obligations under the legislation.
Mr. Cox noted that request for access to an official document must be made to the public authority retaining same.
“The application may be made in writing, via telephone or other electronic means. Once an application is received by the authority, [they are] required, by law, to acknowledge receipt and grant access to the applicant, as long as it is not one of the exempt documents,” he informed.
The Director further indicated that the public authority is required by law to respond within 30 days of receiving the application. It is also required to respond within the same timeline if the application was transferred from another public authority.
He said the entity is at liberty to extend the 30-day period, if it is determined that the circumstances of the case require such.
Access to information officers are also assigned at government entities to deal with the public’s requests and concerns.
They basically process requests; ascertain the material being sought; and determine whether the document is exempt from disclosure.
Additionally, the officers are responsible for communicating information to the applicant on whether or not their request has been granted, denied or deferred.
Mr. Cox informed that the Act also guarantees persons the right to appeal any decision, failure to provide information, or other infringement of the right to access official documents.
Consequent on this, the Unit has established the Access to Information Appeal Tribunal – an oversight body that ensures the public’s right of access is guaranteed when appeals are filed against State authorities.
For more information on the Unit and the Access to Information Act, interested persons may call 876-968-3166 or 876-968-8282.
Individuals may also send an email to [email protected] or visit the website at www.ati.gov.jm.
Source: JIS News