by Lemarque Campbell

“Indeed, if I may be permitted a brief burst of boastful pride, there is nothing in the whole of my more than 40 consecutive years in front line politics of which I am more proud than the fact that there has never been any serious allegation of corruption leveled against me.” These are the words of Prime Minister Perry Christie made during his lecture at the recently held University College of the Cayman Islands’ anti-corruption conference: “Towards a Corruption – Free Caribbean: Ethics, Values, Trust and Morality.” Ironically, on the eve of this conference the headlines of Bahamian newspapers broke the story of the prime minister’s abuse of power in the Ishmael Lightbourne saga.

In making a reference to the Bahamas’ results in the Corruption Perception Index (CPI) — the annual index used to measure the perceived levels of public sector corruption around the world — published annually by Transparency International (TI), the prime minister further stated: “In fact, it bears noting that the Bahamas’ CPI score outranks many countries that have formal anti-corruption oversight bodies and specific anti-corruption laws.”

To formulate why this is the case, it is appropriate to address how corruption is both perceived and measured.

The first form of corruption – petty corruption – is easily perceived by the public through interaction with representatives of the state, i.e. police taking bribes. The second, and more pervasive corruption in Bahamian society is elite corruption, i.e. where politicians make decisions to benefit themselves over the public interests behind closed doors. Elite corruption in the Bahamas is especially evident in the way that the government spends taxpayers’ dollars through unaccountable excessive spending and conflict of interests in awarded government contracts.

The CPI reflects the views of observers from around the world, including experts living and working in the countries and territories evaluated. Capturing perceptions of corruption of those in a position to offer assessments of public sector corruption is the most reliable method of comparing relative corruption levels across countries. However, expert findings of corruption in the Bahamas are by no means conclusive.

For an accurate perception of elite corruption to be measured, two mechanisms should be in place: Freedom of Information (FOI) legislation, which allows the public to access government information; and an active civil society, which uses information obtained in order to provide the broader public with evidence of corruption.

In this regard, the Bahamian government continues to delay the enforcement of the FOI Act, which hinders journalists and NGOs in their investigative roles. Therefore, how can one accurately perceive and measure corruption in the Bahamas — especially elite corruption — without these necessary mechanisms?

Currently, there are over 90 countries that have already enforced FOI legislation. Furthermore, there are TI chapters present in more than 100 countries, exposing government corruption with the evidence obtained in FOI requests.

The importance of freedom of information as a fundamental right is beyond question. Inits first session in 1946, The United Nations General Assembly declared that, “Freedom of Information is a fundamental human right and a touchstone of all freedoms to which the United Nations is consecrated.”

Where information is not freely accessible, corruption can thrive and basic rights might not be realized. Politicians and senior government officials can hide corrupt acts behind a veil of secrecy. When our right to information is denied, we cannot hold the politicians accountable for their actions.

When corruption is rife, resources are wasted, the corrupt benefit at the expense of others, and societies suffer. In fact, corruption and the lack of transparency are major factors for the Bahamas’ current dire fiscal situation. Therefore, public monitoring of government spending today, through a FOI Act, is more crucial than ever as the government intends to increase taxes and introduce VAT in the coming months.Consequently, I call on the prime minister and his government to push forward in enforcing a viable FOI Act – and certainly one that does not provide the minister responsible with vague discretionary powers that limits the release of information.

Also, there needs to be a national campaign to educate the public on how to use the Act to their benefit. The public has a right to know how the government is performing up to its obligations. There is no time to shuffle on this initiative, because the continued lack of transparency in the Bahamas is an affront to democracy.

Lemarque Campbell is a Bahamian international human rights lawyer, currently working with Transparency International – Georgia.