Closed Meeting on FOI Sparks Caymanian Controversy

17 December 2010

Cayman Island legislators have retaliated against a newspaper that drew attention to plans for a closed door meeting on freedom of Information and wrote an editorial cautioning against weakening the law.

The Caymanian Compass and publisher Brian Uzzell is refusing to apologise for the article by reporter Brent Fuller, or the editorial published Dec. 8. In addition, Uzzell, has said that none of the paper’s reporters will be attending the Legislative Assembly until the threat of prosecution is lifted, but will follow the proceedings by radio, according to a story in the Cayman News Service, also described in a Compass editorial Dec. 17.

Speaker of the House Mary Lawrence first asked Fuller to apologize for reporting that a six-member Legislative Assembly subcommittee was going to review Cayman’s freedom of information Law in private, and for the unsigned editorial. Noting the planned closed meeting, the editorial expresses “our fear that the latest WikiLeaks release will serve as an excuse for governments around the world to further restrict access to legitimate public information.”

Legislators voted to cancel Fuller’s press privileges immediately and to recommend criminal prosecution of Fuller for “impugning the integrity” of the Legislative Assembly.  Cayman’s attorney general is examining the matter, according to a report in the Compass.

In a statement at the beginning of a Legislative Assembly meeting on Dec. 9, Speaker of the House Mary Lawrence suspended the reporter’s press privileges to report on the legislature’s meetings for the rest of the week and asked for an apology from him and Cayman Free Press, which publishes the Compass.

Lawrence was quoted as saying: “When the free press, however, begins whittling away at the root of democracy – defaming the integrity of the country’s Legislative Assembly and the integrity of its honourable members, by deliberately planting in the minds of the public the idea that the persons they have chosen to represent them are not worthy of their trust and respect, and imbuing the carrying out of their legislative duties with sinister proportions, it is time for this Chair to act.”

Lawrence cited section 18 (2) of the Immunities, Powers and Privileges Law which covers the publication of statements or reports on the Assembly or any committee. Breaching this law is an offence that carries a penalty of an $800 fine and imprisonment of 12 months.

Independent Assembly member Ezzard Miller proposed a motion resolving to ask the attorney general to prosecute  Fuller and the Compass and to immediately cancel, rather than suspend, Fuller’s reporting privileges at the Legislative Assembly. The motion generated substantial debate and was passed on a 9-4 vote.

The story that started it all began, “It appears the legal review of Cayman’s first Freedom of Information Law will not be done before the eyes of the public. “

The review is required under the new FOI law, which took effect on Jan. 5, 2009.

Fuller reported:  “A number of recommendations about changes to the law have already been made by the FOI Commissioner’s office. However, Commissioner Jennifer Dilbert was not named as one of the committee members. According to Cayman Islands Attorney General Sam Bulgin, a committee of the entire LA met on 15 September behind closed doors and decided on the subcommittee’s formation.”

Anonymous Requests an Issue

Fuller reported that Premier McKeeva Bush “has previously stated that his administration is committed to continuing with the open records law,” but that he has questioned allowing anonymous requests for information and raised concerns about the cost of the law.

Fuller wrote:  “Mrs. Dilbert, who is charged with handling all appeals of FOI requests, has said that the anonymity aspect of FOI is essential for the continued success of the law.   Given previous comments about the FOI review by Premier Bush and Cayman Islands Governor Duncan Taylor, Mrs. Dilbert said she expected to be ‘front and centre’ in leading the role of the committee.

Compass Editorial

A Dec. 13 Compass editorial said there was noting factually wrong with the original article and that “just because the law review says that the meetings can be held in secret doesn’t mean they have to be. Lawmakers can easily suspend Standing Orders to make the meetings public. As a matter of practice, lawmakers vote to suspend Standing Orders fairly frequently. The real question now is, will they in this case?

The editorial continues:

“As for impugning the integrity of any sitting member of the Legislative Assembly, we have to say ‘the lady and gentlemen doth protest too much. Our editorial was meant to bring to the attention of the public – many of which voted for the people sitting in the honourable House – a lack of transparency in government, especially concerning something so important as the freedom of information in this county.

There is a genuine concern the world over that governments are not forthcoming with information to the public; that decisions and policies are being made without input from the people who elected those who are making crucial decisions.

But apparently it is easier to attempt to ‘prosecute’ a reporter and a newspaper than to hold meetings about the FOI law in public.

In another Compass article, Uzzell points out a wider pattern of Lawrence’s hostility to the press.  “First she cancelled all press passes of journalists and insisted they file annual register of interest forms, even though the requirement isn’t supported by Standing Orders,” he said. “Then she took away journalists’ right to use a Legislative Assembly parking spot next to the Library. Now this.”

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