Mon | May 27, 2024

No more secrets!

Civil society group urges repeal of archaic law blocking civil servants from blowing whistle on wrongdoing

Published:Thursday | April 11, 2024 | 12:09 AMEdmond Campbell/Senior Staff Reporter
From left: Conference moderator Michael Abrahams with Danielle Archer, principal director at National Integrity Action; Professor Rosalea Hamilton, director at the Institute of Law and Economics; Mickel Jackson, executive director at Jamaicans For Justice;
From left: Conference moderator Michael Abrahams with Danielle Archer, principal director at National Integrity Action; Professor Rosalea Hamilton, director at the Institute of Law and Economics; Mickel Jackson, executive director at Jamaicans For Justice; Dr Theresa Rodriguez-Moodie, executive director at Jamaica Environment Trust; and Robert Pairman, Kasike/Chief Kalaan at the Yamaye Guani Council, during yesterday’s Advocates Network Civil Society Post-Budget governance press conference held at the Spanish Court Hotel in New Kingston.

Principal Director of National Integrity Action (NIA) Danielle Archer is calling for the urgent repeal of the Official Secrets Act, arguing that the more current Protected Disclosures Act, or whistleblower legislation, cannot succeed alongside the archaic, colonial law.

Calls have also been made by Executive Director of Jamaicans for Justice Mickel Jackson for the long-overdue amendment to the Access to Information Act to be carried out.

Speaking yesterday during an Advocates Network post-Budget governance press conference in New Kingston, Archer contended that the 1911 colonial law militates against the more modern whistleblower law.

The whistleblower legislation is intended to protect persons who blow the cover on wrongdoing in the public sector. It is intended to cover all forms of misconduct that can be reported within an organisation and will address incidents of mismanagement that have passed or are imminent.

The Official Secrets Act prohibits public servants from revealing certain information to the public.

“If we are really serious about accountability, there has to be the repeal of the Official Secrets Act. There must be a repeal of the archaic law and a strengthening of the Protected Disclosures Act because if we don’t find a way to allow people to talk, governance would be pointless,” she said.

In late January, St Patrice Ennis, president of the Jamaica Confederation of Trade Unions trade, dismissed as “nonsense” an internal memo sent to staff of Jamaica Customs Agency that warned the workers against breaching the Official Secrets Act. The memo followed the leak of an air quality assessment report that found that the environment there was harmful.

He told The Gleaner that state agencies often misused the legislation in attempts to silence staff who speak out.

Archer is calling for a clear timeline for the review of critical pieces of legislation such as the Access to Information Act to ensure that greater accountability mechanisms are instituted.

NO EXCUSES FOR INFREQUENT SITTINGS

She blasted parliamentarians for infrequent sittings of the House, noting that no excuses should be accepted as they are now earning very attractive salaries with a more than 200 per cent increase in the compensation restructuring exercise.

“Parliamentarians are required to sit and draft laws and make sure that we have a strong legislative scheme. It’s been an excuse for decades to say that we don’t have enough time,” she said.

“We are paying the politicians quality money. There should be no excuses about accommodation or time constraints,” she stressed.

Archer said she was looking forward to hearing when the Government would be reviewing the country’s legislation to make them relevant to the current Jamaican reality.

Reminding Jamaicans that there has been a plethora of calls over the years for the Access to Information Act to be reviewed, the JFJ executive director said that to date, no move has been made to make changes to the law.

In the 2021 Governor General’s Throne Speech, a commitment was made to review the Access to Information Act.

In the same year, then state minister for education, youth and information Robert Morgan, who was speaking at a Press Association of Jamaica event, dubbed ‘Right to Know Week 2021’, said amendments to the ATI Act were not likely to happen anytime soon.

Passed in June 2002, the ATI Act gives citizens and other persons a general legal right of access to official government documents that would otherwise be inaccessible.

“I do not expect us to have a new law until probably late 2022-23 because the legislative agenda is very packed. I think that’s a little ambitious, but I think if we push, we can get it done,” he said at the time.

Jackson said yesterday that efforts by JFJ to obtain certain information under the ATI Act regarding the Armadale fire that resulted in the deaths of seven girls have been unsuccessful. She said to date, “we are unaware of how people have been held accountable”.

“When we were speaking to the Protected Disclosures Act at the joint select committee (of Parliament), we made a recommendation that you can’t have a whistleblower law, but there are challenges in how the ATI Act is being utilised and that there is a lack of clarity around the Official Secrets Act,” Jackson said.

“In other words you can’t eradicate corruption. You can’t have accountability if the public officials are not aware of what limitations there may be,” she added.

edmond.campbell@gleanerjm.com