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Vanuatu: Right to Information Law Comes into Force

(Feb. 10, 2017) On February 6, 2017, Vanuatu’s first freedom of information law came into effect, following the unanimous passage of the law by the Parliament on November 24, 2016. (Right to Information Becomes Law in Vanuatu, RADIO NEW ZEALAND (Feb. 8, 2017); Jane Joshua, PINA and MAV Laud Historic RTI Law, VANUATU DAILY POST (Feb. 7, 2017); Right to Information Act Becomes Law in Vanuatu, PASIFIK (Feb. 7, 2017).) The purpose of the Right to Information Act 2016 is

(a) to give effect to the right to freedom of expression under paragraph 5(1)(g) of the Constitution of the Republic of Vanuatu [PacLII]; and

(b) to provide access to information held by Government agencies, relevant private entities and private entities, subject to exceptions provided under Part 5 of this Act; and

(c) to establish voluntary and mandatory mechanisms to give the public the right to access to information; and

(d) to promote transparency, accountability, and national development by empowering and educating the public to understand and act upon their rights to information; and

(e) to increase public participation in governance. (Bill for the Right to Information Act No. … of 2016, cl. 1, Parliament of Vanuatu website.)

Information to Be Published by Government Agencies

Under the Act, government agencies and relevant private entities are required to “publish and disseminate an initial statement of its organization in each official language,” with the statement to include certain types of listed information, and to update that information every six months. (Id. cl. 6(1) & (2).) In addition, they must “publish all relevant facts, important policies or decisions which affect the public,” provide reasons for certain decisions, and publish information related to tenders and finalized contracts. (Id. cl. 6(3).)

The Act also obligates the government to publish information regarding its functions and activities, including:

(a) laws, rules or guidelines applicable to elections; and

(b) electoral rolls for public inspection; and

(c) the broadcast of sessions of Parliament across Vanuatu; and

(d) transcripts of parliamentary proceedings; and

(e) copies of all Bills and subsidiary legislation; and

(f) terms of reference, submissions and final reports of Parliamentary Committees; and

(g) Court decisions.  (Id. cl. 7(1).)

The Process of Applying for Information

The Act provides rules and processes related to applications for accessing government information by members of the public. To that end, each agency is required to appoint a Right to Information Officer (id. cls. 11-12) and any person must be able to submit a request for specified information, which can be done “in writing, orally or through any electronic means, in any official language.” (Id. cl. 13.) A Right to Information Officer must make a decision on the request within 30 days and inform the requester, although a 48hour time limit applies to information “that appears to be necessary to safeguard the life or liberty of a person.” (Id. cl. 16.)

Part 5 of the Act allows requests to be refused when one of the listed exemptions applies to the information. This includes when

  • there is an overriding public interest in nondisclosure (id. cl. 38);
  • releasing information would involve disclosing personal information (id. cl. 42);
  • the information is subject to legal privilege (id. cl. 43);
  • the release of the information would constitute an actionable breach of confidence or reveal a trade secret (id. cl. 44);
  • granting access to information would affect law enforcement processes (id. cl. 46);
  • releasing the information would prejudice the defense or national security of the country or the economic interests of the state (id. cls. 47 & 48);
  • “serious prejudice” to the effective formulation of government policy or an adverse impact on the implementation of a policy from disclosure would result (id. cl. 49); or 
  • protected sites or endangered plants or animals could be interfered with or damaged as a result of releasing the information (id. cl. 50).

The Act also sets out procedures for a person to amend personal information held by a government agency. (Id. pt. 4.)

Appeals, Guidelines, and Offenses

The government is to appoint an Information Commissioner to investigate appeals regarding the decisions of Right to Information Officers and to monitor compliance with the Act. (Id. pt. 6.)  The Act sets out certain investigation and enforcement powers with respect to appeals. (Id. pt. 7.)

The Commissioner and his or her associated unit are also tasked with issuing guidelines on best practices for agencies and with developing a code of practice on records management. (Id. pt. 8.)

The Act also contains a provision on the protection of whistleblowers (id. cl. 83) and sets out various offenses and punishments for breaching the Act’s provisions. (Id. cl. 86.)

Reactions

The Media Association of Vanuatu (Media Asosiesen blong Vanuatu) commended the passage of the Act, saying it was a “major development and achievement not only for Vanuatu’s growing media industry but for the Vanuatu government also.” (Historic Right to Information Act Passed in Vanuatu, INTERNATIONAL FEDERATION OF JOURNALISTS (Dec. 7, 2016).) The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) stated:

The passing of the RTI Act in Vanuatu is a significant milestone in this country’s history.  Public access to information is crucial for democracy.  Enshrined in law, this will ensure that the Vanuatuan media will be able to report more accurately and responsibly on government activities, and that the public will be better equipped to engage in democratic processes.  (Id.)

The Prime Minister of Vanuatu, Charlot Salwai, referred to the country’s international obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the United Nations Convention Against Corruption in regard to transparency, accountability, and respecting the right of people to seek and receive information.  He said that the Act is part of national policy, “reflected in the government’s commitment that information is a right and fundamental cornerstone of the democratic principle of good governance.”  (Jane Joshua, Historic RTI Bill Passed, VANUATU DAILY POST (Nov. 25, 2016).)

The IFJ noted that, with the passage of the Act, Vanuatu had joined 105 other countries with right to information legislation. (Historic Right to Information Act Passed in Vanuatusupra.)