Well. One can always count on Jamaican civil society to express itself with vigor and conviction, and this morning was no exception at Gordon House – the unimpressive and cramped building where our Parliament sits in downtown Kingston. Executive Director Professor Trevor Munroe and members of the anti-corruption body National Integrity Action (NIA) – including myself – were first to arrive, and were greeted by the pleasant and professional Miss Brandon, who got us organized and seated. The sitting, scheduled to start at 10:00 a.m., got under way half an hour later, once a quorum was established.
What was this all about?
On November 26, 2013, Member of Parliament for North East St. Elizabeth Raymond Pryce tabled a Private Member’s Motion (22/2013) in the Lower House concerning civil society groups, special interest groups and lobby groups being statutorily required to disclose their sources of funding. The Motion is now before the Internal and External Affairs Committee of the House of Representatives, which is chaired by Derrick Smith, M.P. Now, there are quite a few Private Member’s Motions floating around, and it may take some time for this one to reach the stage of being debated in the Lower House, especially with elections in the air. We shall see.
The exact wording of the Motion is as follows:
Moved by the Member of Parliament for St. Elizabeth, North Eastern and approved by the House of Representatives on the 26th day of November, 2013:
WHEREAS it is widely accepted that Jamaica’s vibrant democracy depends on an active role for civil society;
AND WHEREAS it has been generally agreed that democracies can be compromised by the undue influence of lobby groups acting at the behest of unknown funders with unspecified agendas;
AND WHEREAS it is becoming normal in many other jurisdictions for legislation to be promulgated which mandates civil society groups and other special interest groups or lobbyists to be registered and to publish certified and audited financial statements;
AND WHEREAS this Parliament is considering a similar regime with respect to political parties:
BE IT RESOLVED that this Honourable House debate the appropriateness and need for legislation in Jamaica that will, at the very least, require civil society groups, special interest groups and lobby groups – in keeping with emerging global financial and ethical requirements – to vouchsafe and protect Jamaica’s democracy from any such compromise as could be caused by unknown or tainted sources of funds or hidden agendas.
AND BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the motion be referred to the Internal and External Affairs Committee for consideration and report.
Damion Crawford was the first to arrive at the Committee meeting, pacing up and down with his cell phone glued to his ear; along with Committee Chairman Derrick Smith, who ably refereed the discussion, with the occasional touch of dry humor. Two members had sent apologies for absence. Eventually Crawford and Smith were joined by Members of Parliament Delroy Chuck, Dr. Winston Green, Dr. Lynvale Bloomfield (two medical doctors) and Denise Daley. Today, four civil society groups were to make submissions to the Committee: NIA, the Women’s Resource and Outreach Centre, Women Business Owners and Woman Inc. Professor Munroe was the first to present, and here is his submission:
In making this presentation I and National Integrity Action (NIA) wish to make it absolutely clear that as citizens of Jamaica and, in accordance with our core value, transparency, we uphold the ‘right to information’ of the Jamaican people and authorities and hence our work and activity, including our audited financial statements are and have been published on our website for the last two years. There for you and the public to see it is published that, hitherto, our main financial support has come not from ‘ unknown or tainted sources of funds ‘ but from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and from the Department for International Development (UK), whose agendas on the combat of corruption are not ‘ hidden’ but are public, intersect with that of NIA, and coincide with the opinions of the Jamaican people and stated objectives of successive Jamaican governments. The websites of International Development Partners also openly indicate which other Jamaican bodies are also receiving open support in pursuit of objectives of value to the Jamaican people.
This right to information is set out in The Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms (Constitutional Amendments) Act 2011. In respect of public authorities and official documents, it is a right reinforced by statute with general application, namely, the Access to Information Act 2002. This right is also expressed in laws relevant to civil society organisations, not –for-profit companies and charitable societies. The requirements of these statutes, namely, the Companies Act, Charities Act and the Money Laundering Act are adhered to by NIA and clearly set out in the submission already received by this committee from Jamaicans for Justice* (JFJ) (see pgs. 3-5) and other civil society organisations.
We support that statutory framework and those submissions and we agree with the position that current statutory provisions are in accordance with accepted best practice in established democracies (see pgs. 5-6). Against this background we suggest that there is no need whatsoever for legislation nor regulation in Jamaica beyond that which already exists and that any additional regulations, would be inappropriate. More importantly such additions would run the grave risk of imposing a burden, especially on smaller or less formal groups, which may well endanger a fundamental right of the citizen to form associations and to make representations on their behalf to the authorities. We remind the committee that the Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms enshrines in Article 3(e) “the right to freedom of association” and concomitantly “the right to freedom of expression” (3c). Further, we remind this committee that the Charter passed by our Parliament and enshrined in our constitution states unambiguously “Parliament shall pass no law and no organ of the State shall take any action which abrogates, abridges or infringes those rights” (Article 2b). we submit that any additional law or regulation beyond those which NIA and other civil society groups strongly support, imposing additional burdens on civil society and other special interest groups would impede the capacity of many groups to function (as pointed out in previous submissions) and thereby violate the Charter of Rights. Such a violation would, in addition, run counter to the assertion in the motion “that Jamaica’s vibrant democracy depends on an active role for civil society”.
In so doing such additional impositions would hamper the benefits, as set out in NIA’s submission, which Multi-lateral Organisations, International Financial Institutions and Treaties, to which Jamaica belongs or is a signatory, derive from active partnerships with civil society organisations here and elsewhere. In this regard, I would like to draw your attention to one such – the United Nations Convention against Corruption (UNCAC) which, by our country’s ratification, commits Jamaica as a Member State, (in accordance with Article 13 )“ to promote the active participation of individuals and groups outside the public sector such as civil society, non-governmental organisations and community based organisations, in the prevention of and the fight against corruption and to raise public awareness regarding the existence, causes and gravity of and threat posed by corruption” (see NIA’s submission, pg.6).
We concur with the view that financial disclosure requirements in Canada, United Kingdom, Australia and South Africa do not manifest legislation specifically mandating disclosure of sources of funds by “civil society groups and special interest groups” beyond the degree currently existing in Jamaica. On the other hand we note the trend in the report prepared by the World Movement for Democracy and cited in the submission , under the signature of a number civil society organisation to your Committee, namely: “today, many governments around the world increasingly use restrictive legal measures to constrain civil society groups and prevent them from facilitating meaningful citizen participation in areas of political and social development. To respond to this regressive trend, governments, civil society organizations, and the international community have engaged in both successful and unsuccessful advocacy efforts to reform restrictive legal measures and to prevent new ones from being enacted…”
As indicative of this dangerous tendency, our submission draws the Committee’s attention to specific case studies of over-regulation of civil society organisations in Ethiopia, Ecuador and Malaysia. These are but three examples of too many cases of restrictions on the freedom of assembly, freedom of speech and of democratic governance, inconsistent with our constitution and with international conventions; we urge that this Committee and Parliament scrupulously avoid such infringements in recommendations which it may make arising from this motion.
*Jamaica’s Statutory Framework for Financial reporting by Civil Society Organizations –Jamaicans for Justice
Professor Munroe emphasized the crucial right to information for the Jamaican public; hence the publication of NIA’s audited financial statements on its website. After all, as the Jamaica Chapter of Transparency International, this is what NIA is all about. He expressed agreement with JFJ’s position on the Motion (I will post this in a subsequent blog).
Sipping on a cup of very sweet coffee kindly provided by the staff, I listened to questions and comments from Committee members. Delroy Chuck, while conceding that the Motion “may be going a bit far,” pointed to what he saw as a need to “establish the legitimacy” of civil society groups. He was concerned that mysterious “fly by night” groups might pop up. Damion Crawford, however, said he had no problem with such temporary groupings, because “some issues are ‘fly by night.'” Professor Munroe pointed out that Jamaica’s founding fathers gave those who flew by night the right to freedom of association too, as well as established civil society organizations. This is freedom of expression and association.
Committee members and the NIA seemed broadly in agreement over the need for “disclosure” of funds and for transparency (even in political parties? Committee members seemed a little ambivalent on that issue). Dr. Green thought the “spirit” of the Motion was to encourage a move towards greater transparency, not further restrictions. Professor Munroe pointed out an important distinction between civil society and political parties on the disclosure issue, however: politicians “make law.”
Damion Crawford agreed that “campaign finance affects policy, and that is key.” He then began wrestling with the question of whose voice or voices the Jamaican public (and indeed, political leaders) should be listening to. The “amplification” of a few voices, he suggested, can influence public opinion and thus policy. This is a concern for him; he used the word “amplification” more than once, and then mentioned callers to radio talk shows who have an “agenda.” A group impacting policy decisions may not actually be representative of all its clients or constituents, he suggested, so “the minority becomes the majority.” Don’t we listen to minority voices any more, Mr. Crawford? And can’t Jamaicans, as intelligent human beings, figure these things out for themselves? Democracy is like social media (well, social media is democracy, I believe): there are many voices shouting all kinds of half-baked nonsense (and the occasional truths). Can’t we sort out the wheat from the chaff? It’s really not so hard.
Professor Munroe reiterated that NIA strongly upholds the right to information; that its funds are not “unknown or tainted”; and that the existing legal framework was more than adequate. He stressed that many small civil society groups do not have the capacity to comply with even more onerous and costly reporting requirements. He also referred to the growing number of “restrictive legal measures” against civil society and non-governmental organizations globally. It seems to be a trend – the “dangerous tendency” mentioned above. According to the World Movement for Democracy’s Defending Civil Society report of 2012, “A disturbingly large number of governments…are using legal and regulatory measures to undermine and constrain civil society.”
As this global trend continues, it would not be wise for Jamaica to take the same course. Nor would it be helpful for our democracy, for our government and people. We can do better than that!
Footnote: Following the NIA submission, three women’s organizations made excellent presentations to the Committee. I listened up in the gallery. I will discuss these in a separate post.
IMPORTANT NOTE! The NIA and the Electoral Commission of Jamaica will co-host a Town Hall Meeting at Manchester High School in Mandeville TOMORROW evening (Wednesday, September 23) at 5:30 p.m. Admission free. The topic: “Respect Your Vote: Your Right, Your Responsibility.”