By: Mark Fitzgerald
This is Sunshine Week in the Cayman Islands, a spot better known for its strict bank secrecy laws and offshore incorporations with a minimum of paperwork and a maximum of privacy.
But the Caymans legislature several weeks ago passed the islands’ first Freedom of Information (FOI) law, and officials were anxious to spread the word about government transparency. Holding a Sunshine Week pegged to International Right To Know Day on September 28 seemed like a natural, said Carole Excell, coordinator for the government office that is rolling out administration of the new law.
“We got the idea, of course, from the U.S. Sunshine Week, from the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE), and we decided to replicate it in the Caymans,” she said by telephone from her office in Elizabethan Square in Grand Cayman.
So is it a particular challenge to sell transparency in a territory that has prospered by putting a premium on the privacy of individuals and companies banking and incorporating in the Caymans for reasons both legitimate and not?
“I would say with most governments there’s a culture of secrecy,” Excell said with a small laugh. “A culture that you don’t have the right to information, and you couldn’t get it.”
Excell also noted that the Caymans remain a British overseas territory. So on top of its financial secrecy, which post-9/11 is ceding some to regulatory oversight, the Caymans carry the U.K. tradition of the Official Secrets Act and prior press restrictions on matters such as criminal accusations.
“This is going to be a huge change for the civil service,” Excell said. “That’s why we want to use Sunshine Week to introduce the principles of transparency.”
Sunshine Week in the United States began several months after the 2001 terrorist attacks with a statewide campaign of pro-transparency editorials, articles, and cartoons coordinated by the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors. ASNE took it national in 2004. In the United States, the week is organized around National FOI Day, and will be conducted next March 16-22.
While the Sunshine Week emphasis in the U.S. has been on encouraging ordinary citizens to use and insist on their rights to access public information and official meetings, this first Caymans project will focus on educating the press and bureaucrats about the new law.
Excell’s office is starting small by “engaging some key groups in learning about the new law” and the government’s implementation plans, she said. Each year, it will grow to involve more and more people, she added.
Among the events will be talks by freedom of information expert Laura Neuman, assistant director of the Americas Program at The Carter Center, who has directed implementation of the center’s transparency projects, in Jamaica, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Mali.
Excell’s own FOI Office will officially open on Wednesday Sept. 26. The unit will be responsible for setting up FOI officers in each government ministry and other administrative details. Excell said she hopes to have the FOI law, which has not yet received formal signature of the governor, by January 2009.