By Landing Ceesay
The Attorney General and Minister of Justice said defaulters under Access to Information [ATI] law would be prosecuted.
“A person who with intent to deny the right of access to information must specifically intend to deny the right of access. and to put your that intention to action your resort to destroying, damaging or altering information or concealing information or falsifying information or making a false record or obstructing the performance of the information holder or you interfere or obstruct the work of the commission or direct it or you counsel somebody to carry out the above.
“You obstruct all to the furtherance of your intention to deny access of course even if you are a public officer you don’t need any protection. You have to face the full force of the law. Because you’re not supposed to intend to deny access if the request is reasonable,” Dawda A Jallow The Attorney General stated.
The justice minister made these remarks at the National Assembly during the consideration stage of the Access to Information Bill 2019, now 2021.
While addressing what kind of information exempted from disclosure under the circumstance, the Justice Minister said information that has to do with national security can be concealed but it has to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.
“… if as a holder of this public information you believe that there is a genuine reason why this information must not be released there is an avenue for that, you can be refused to disclose the information based on national security, public interest and all other issues listed therein. But then that will be scrutinised and there is a due process for that the commission will integrate your excuse and either agree or disagree with you,” AG Jallow explained.
The Justice Minister said even if the commission disagrees with you the commission is not the last result but also you can even go to court. He said the public officers could go to court because there are some of the special instances where the Supreme Court have original jurisdiction and depending on the excuse; the Supreme Court will then have to determine whether genuinely there is a national interest to be protected. He added that therefore, the court will agree with you not to disclose the information or your excuse is not genuine enough then the court can order the information to be released.
On the punishment, people should face, if they concealed or falsify information the Attorney General said the National Assembly should set a minimum and maximum standard of fines and jail terms for the decision of the court.
“I think usually, it’s better when we make the punishment and give the court a range within which they exercised their discretion you can have a minimum and a maximum and leave the court in between because the court is the one that is looking at the perpetrator, studying the demeanour of the perpetrator and would put into consideration whether the person has regretted, is remorseful, or not and then can determine what is appropriate at the moment whether it needs to be very high, whether it has to be mid-weight or it has to be less depending on what transpired in court during the trial,” the Justice Minister informed.
The original bill tabled before the National Assembly select committee tasks for scrutinising the access to information Bill 2019 now 2021 initially proposed a fine of 100 Thousand Dalasi at the same time 6 months imprisonment jail term for people who conceal, falsify or destroy information requested especially public officers.
Honourable Alhagie Mbowe, Vice Chairman of the committee said they believe the fine should be increased to 250 thousand dalasi and the jail term to 2 years imprisonment; saying a punitive measure needs to be in place to deter people from concealing or destroying information.
“Now if you ask for information and somebody refuses to give it to you and this is crucial somebody is going to make, I think we need to put some punitive measures that will be deterring. So it is not only about money the government is going to take but it is about deterring, we want to deter people from concealing, falsifying or destroying correct information to the requesters. So that’s why the committee wants the money to be increased to 250 thousand dalasi and increase the jail term from 6 months to 2 years imprisonment,” Alhagie Mbowe NAM for Upper Saloum constituency stated.
Meanwhile, like Mbowe, Honourable Sidia Jatta, NAM for Wuli West is in support of the idea of 250 thousand dalasi fine and 2 years imprisonment term suggested by the committee Vice Chair.
“I support the position of the committee, it is not the ordinary people who do this, these offences are grave and it is not the poor and ordinary people who do it. So I support the 250 thousand dalasi and 2 years imprisonment,” the Wuli West NAM stated.
After more than two hours of debate on the punishment of people found wanting when the bill is passed into a law, the parliament then agreed that the punishment for the defaulters would be either a fine between 50 thousand to 250 thousand dalasi or a jail term of one year.
The Access to information Bill was considered with amendments and passed to the third reading stage, slated for the 22nd of June, 2021.