‘Underutilised’ Commissioner of Information still up to the task

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Retired Court of Appeal Judge and former Attorney General Charles Ramson Snr. SC continues to function as Guyana’s Commissioner of Information and though he says his office is underutilised, Justice Ramson maintains he is still up to the task.

In 2013, Ramson Snr. was appointed by then President Donald Ramotar as Guyana’s first-ever Commissioner of Information – an independent state official.

The Commissioner functions as a conduit for the public’s access to information, as detailed in the 2011 Access to Information Act. Any citizen can submit an application to his office requesting the Commissioner’s assistance in retrieving information the citizen has otherwise been unable to access.

Yet, he said his office, and by extension his services, are underutilised.

“The office is underutilised for more than one reason. One, it is not appropriately located,” Justice Ramson Snr. said on Thursday during an interview with the News Room.

The Commissioner works out of his quaint East Street, Georgetown house after he was forced out of his previous office in the compound of the Office of the President by the former APNU+AFC administration.

Justice Ramson Snr. related that from 06:00 hrs each weekday, he avails himself to citizens seeking information. He spends most of his days in the building’s upper flat, where he also entertains applicants who stop by for a chat.

Additionally, he said public awareness, or the lack thereof, may be contributing to the underutilisation of the office.

“Because of the way the office was treated under the previous administration, people seem not to have lost touch with the efficacy of the office,” the retired Judge contended.

He, however, added, “…(but) there are still people who have found the time to make the applications to the Office and I have dealt with those people successfully and I have not heard any disgruntlement from them.”

The Office of the Commissioner of Information is currently without permanent support staff, but the News Room understands that the Commissioner receives support from the Office of the President.

Even so, Justice Ramson Snr. assured members of the public that he is well able to provide them with the assistance they may need.

Importantly though, Justice Ramson explained that information, in most cases, should already be easily accessible by members of the public. By law, local public authorities- be it government ministries or agencies- should be providing much-needed information routinely.

“A public authority is required to take as many steps as necessary to provide the information that is in its possession- that the purpose of a website- to the public, on its own volition.

“…the need for the Commissioner’s intervention ought to be seen as the last resort,” Justice Ramson Snr. said.

The 2011 Act details what information is exempt from public dissemination. It includes documents that contain information which would likely hamper or weaken defence efforts, prejudice relations between Guyana and other States, and/or is generally contrary to public interest.

Certain Cabinet documents are also exempted.

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