The introduction of a Freedom of Information (FOI) Act in Mauritius is one of the recommendations made by Geoffrey Robertson QC to the Prime Minister in his preliminary report on media law and ethics reform. Such legislation would create a right – for the press and the general public – to access information held by public officials, and a corresponding duty on the officials to disclose the sought information.  Given the far-reaching nature of this proposed legislation, it is understandable that there would be serious reservations regarding its introduction.
It may be argued, for instance, that important information has already been made available to the public, in the form of minutes of parliamentary proceedings, published reports, etc. However, if this was truly sufficient, why would various countries – such as the UK, the US, France, India, South Africa, among others – have enacted FOI laws? One could assume that they too would have been disclosing important information to the public in a similar way… FOI laws would have developed, then, from understanding that members of the public may have additional questions about the government that they have voted into power, about the way in which their taxes are being utilised, and other issues that affect the exercise of their rights.
Admittedly, there are no prohibitions on asking such questions in Mauritius. But these questions would most likely remain unanswered – for reasons ranging from inconvenience to fraudulence – if there is no legal ground for compelling public officials to provide answers. FOI statutes in countries such as India for example, provide a time-frame within which, either the information must be furnished, or written reasons should be given explaining why the information may not be disclosed.  The fact that the FOI Act would create a right to information and a duty to disclose information is central here.
An illustration of this would be the parliamentary expenses scandal uncovered in the UK using their FOI Act in 2009. Information regarding the misuse of taxpayers’ money would hardly have been made accessible if it were not for the Act. The uproar following the revelations led to several MPs resigning or being fired, as well as to the reimbursement of the expenses incurred on their behalf.