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PATI: Your right to know starts today

After more than a decade of waiting, landmark legislation allowing unprecedented public scrutiny of the Government's affairs has today become law.

Public Access to Information, or PATI, has the power to profoundly alter the way the Island conducts its affairs, according to Gitanjali Gutierrez, Bermuda's first information commissioner.

“It's a huge change from the way that we have been doing business,” said Ms Gutierrez, who noted that confidentiality had been the order of the day under the Island's Westminster system.

“It's incredibly empowering for people in the public to have the same information as the decision-makers — and then engage them. I was surprised when I moved to Bermuda that there was not a law like this in place; I'm used to people talking to legislators and being equally informed. I have found that in Bermuda, you have people fighting over the facts instead of everyone having the same facts.”

An American lawyer who has worked extensively with the Centre for Constitutional Rights (CCR), Ms Gutierrez is no stranger to fighting secrecy. She came to international prominence for her defence of individuals detained by the United States Government at the Guantánamo Bay prison in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

Ms Gutierrez was the first civilian lawyer to visit clients there, and has spoken candidly of her outrage at the torture inflicted on prisoners at the US “Camp Delta” detention facility — including her client Mohammed al-Qahtani, a Saudi national, who is still held there on suspicion of attempting to take part in the 9/11 attacks.

She is also one of the plaintiffs named in a 2007 lawsuit by the CCR against then US President George W Bush and the National Security Agency over the surveillance of counsel for persons imprisoned in connection with those attacks.

Ms Gutierrez has worked on cases dealing with “significant immigration matters”, as well as medical records held by governmental agencies.

However, most of her energy in recent weeks has gone into educating the Bermuda public about how PATI will work — and getting her office in order.

The information commissioner will work temporarily from the former legal aid office at 129 Front Street before moving to what was the Parliamentary Registrar's office, which is still being renovated.

Long in the works, PATI has been at times furiously awaited by activists and politicians, but its implementation has nevertheless managed to come suddenly.

“The budget for the information commissioner's office kicks in on April 1, so that's when I will turn to staffing the office,” Ms Gutierrez said.

Appointed to the post at the end of February, Ms Gutierrez said that it had been “definitely challenging getting the new office set up”.

Although requests for information could not be filed before today, she said people had already been asking.

However, Ms Gutierrez will not be the first point of contact for those seeking information. Those will be handled by the information officers for more than 200 public authorities. Exactly how many such officers will be on the job as of today is not a figure that Ms Gutierrez could provide.

“Some of them will double up,” she said. “That's permitted by law. Each authority will issue a statement explaining the types of records that will be available.”

In the interim, Ms Gutierrez has been engaging the public as part of an education campaign aimed at getting people to understand the scope of their new rights. With the office's budget approved, Ms Gutierrez will turn to hiring a high-level office manager as soon as possible, while others will be taken on to deal with the various stages of resolving appeals over information given or withheld.

The office's website, www.ico.bm, should be up and running by the end of this week.

“There has been some fear that this suddenly means every single drawer or computer will be open to the public, but the PATI law is very balanced between the public's right to know and disclosures that could hurt the country,” she said. “People have to remember that.”

She did not foresee serious risks with the new freedom taking Bermuda's system of administration by surprise.

“It will make Bermuda a better country with a more informed public,” she said. “The short-term challenges will be outweighed by those benefits.”

Bermuda is a comparative latecomer to freedom of information. The US led the way with federal statutes approved in the 1960s and various states following suit. Britain's Freedom of Information Act 2000 came into effect in 2005. To our south, the Cayman Islands trumped Bermuda by enacting its own freedom of information legislation in 2007.

PATI was an early promise of the former Progressive Labour Party Government under Alex Scott.

The law was eventually passed in 2010 and, subsequently, Premier Paula Cox indicated that it would become operational by the end of 2012.

Regulations were finally approved last year by the One Bermuda Alliance Government, with Premier Michael Dunkley describing PATI as “the hallmark of a modern democracy”.

The implementation of PATI and the hiring of a commissioner came with a controversy of its own — one that may well be subject to one of the early requests for information.

Ms Gutierrez is the spouse of a Bermudian and has lived on the Island since 2011, but her appointment to the five-year post that will pay her $900,000 over that period sparked a protest from the PLP that a Bermudian candidate had been passed over despite having been at the head of the selection panel's shortlist.

Governor George Fergusson had the final say in the selection of Ms Gutierrez, rankling many in the Opposition. The preferred candidate chosen for the role has yet to be named but, in announcing Ms Gutierrez's appointment, Mr Fergusson noted her record in the US and in Britain, as well as her “impressive experience of leading a team in complex areas of legal interpretation and public scrutiny”.

Information Commissioner Gitanjali Gutierrez

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Published April 01, 2015 at 9:00 am (Updated April 01, 2015 at 9:00 pm)

PATI: Your right to know starts today

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