In July last year, well known activist, Jonathan Yearwood, sought from the Commissioner of Information his good offices in obtaining a copy of the contract entered into between the Ministry of Housing and Impressions Inc. relating to the Building Expo which had been held earlier. Yearwood had requested the information from the Ministry without success. The Commissioner, Justice Charles Ramson S.C., former Attorney General and Minister of Legal Affairs, wrote to the Ministry requesting a copy of the contract and advised Yearwood accordingly. As it turned out, the Ministry did not provide the Commissioner with the contract, and it has never been revealed. This begs the question, was there a contract in writing?
In an interview late last year with the publisher of Kaieteur News, Glenn Lall, Vice President Bharrat Jagdeo indicated that he has no objection to the publication of mining contracts between miners or mining companies and the Government or the Guyana Geology and Mines Commission, but that it was a matter for the Ministry of Natural Resources. The Minister, Mr. Vickram Bharrat, has agreed to make the contracts public but that has not been done so far. It is not known if the terms of mining contracts vary or if they contain confidential information.
In any event, the culture of secrecy has been long ingrained as part of governance in Guyana. Section 63 (1) of the Public Corporations Act 1988 states: “A managing director of a corporation sole or a member of a corporation aggregate or any officer or other employee of any corporation (a) shall regard, and deal with, as secret and confidential all information, documents and matters which, or knowledge of which, he may obtain as such managing director, member or officer, or other employee; and (b) shall not make use of any document, matter or information which, or knowledge of which, he may obtain as such managing director, member or officer or other employee, for the benefit of himself or other person, or otherwise than for the purpose of his duties as such managing director, member or officer or other employee.” The following section permits disclosure when lawfully required by a court or by any law. This law is still on the books and no effort has been made to repeal or amend it.
The above law was passed at a time when the seeking or possession of information was considered to be a subversive act. Opposition newspapers had been harassed for two decades prior and shut down for at least one and a half. The Stabroek News had only just emerged. Guyana has since been liberated from information starvation and notable progress has been made, especially in procurement, with the publication of bids and of successful bidders. The publication of engineers’ estimates, as has been promised, will enhance transparency. Part of the liberation of Guyana has been the passage of the Access to Information Act 2011. However, little use has been made of the provisions of this Act in order to test its efficacy and complaints are still pouring in. Invoking the Act did not work in the case of Mr. Yearwood, but one swallow does not make a summer.
Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedoms to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” UNESCO’s website states: “UNESCO advocates for access to information as a fundamental freedom and a key pillar in building inclusive knowledge societies…Access to information serves as an integral part of freedom of expression and as an important tool for promoting the rule of law, other rights and building trust.” Transparency International states: “Access to information gives you the right by law to access facts and data concerning the exercise by any public authority, as well as the use of any public funds.” Information is, therefore, recognized as a human right and as an indispensable instrument in the struggle for transparency and accountability and against corruption. As civil society grows and journalists become bolder and opposition politicians become more creative, the demand for information grows in Guyana. The Government would do well to embrace this wave rather and not swim against it.
The Opposition has recently tabled a motion in the National Assembly as follows: “Be it resolved that this National Assembly instructs the Minister of Natural Resources to forthwith lay over in the National Assembly all documents relating to the construction of the Wales Gas-to-Energy Project and the Heads of Agreement signed on June 30, 2022.” The Prime Minister had mentioned in the National Assembly that the documents on the Wales Gas-to-Energy Project would be made available “in due course.”
It not known what would be the outcome of the motion. But just a few short years ago another massive project was developed by the Government of Guyana, the Amalia Falls Hydro Project, which failed. One of the major complaints in relation to this project was the failure to timely disclose the material for this project. It was eventually disclosed but not until substantial opposition had developed to it. The AFHP eventually failed.