Launch of the Conversations for Change series

In collaboration with CIVICUS (an international alliance dedicated to strengthen citizen action and civil society around the world), Disclosure Today launched the first of a series of Conversations for Change, Reimagining Civic Power and Responsibility on the Global Day of Citizen Action, which is part of a global campaign to raise awareness about the importance of ‘civic space’, the freedom to speak out, organize and take action. This is the second year that the day is being commemorated and last year there were over 20,000 participants in 48 events in 26 countries.  This year Trinidad and Tobago was placed on the map joining this important global campaign for civic rights.

The Conversations for Change Series profiles leading business, civic and social change advocates who have a demonstrable track record in achieving breakthrough change on public and social issues. The objective is to inspire citizens and in particular graduates at the beginning of the their careers to start thinking of their role and their responsibilities of 21st century citizenship. We believe that by engaging and recording these conversations we capture for future generations the collective genius of citizen change-makers who went before, and thereby inspire and facilitate sustainable civic and social innovation.

The first live conversation of the series, Citizen Empowerment Through Freedom of Information, kicked off at the Hilton Hotel, Trinidad and Tobago on the 16th May 2015. The conversation featured three civic game-changers, the former Attorney General of Trinidad and Tobago who championed the FOI, the former head of the FOI Unit, Trinidad and Tobago and a citizen activist who successfully uses the FOI.

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From Left, Afra Raymond, President-JCC, Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj S.C., Former Attorney General Trinidad and Tobago and Rishi Maharaj, Former Head – FOI Unit, Trinidad and Tobago

The session then continued into an open dialogue with over 80 representatives from civil society organisations, the University of the West Indies and concerned citizens.  The session was video-taped to ensure open public access to the critical information shared on how citizens can leverage the power of the FOI to augment their work in civil society.

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At the event, both Mr. Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj S.C. and Mr. Afra Raymond (President of the Joint Consultative Council) were presented with the inaugural Awards for Civic Entrepreneurship (A.C.E) 2015 for distinction in creativity, innovation and resilience on civic issues in Trinidad and Tobago.  Both Honourees expressed their gratitude for the recognition and in particular urged young people to become more involved on civic issues.

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Tanya Alexis, Chief Puzzle Solver, Disclosure Today presents the A.C.E 2015 to Afra Raymond.

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Justin Phelps, Chief Legal Strategist – Disclosure Today presents A.C.E 2015 to Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj 2015

Other critical issues highlighted by the Honourees during the Conversation For Change No.1, moderated by Mr. Rishi Maharaj, were:

  • Citizens need to take greater responsibility to educate themselves on their right to information. Information held by public authorities belongs to the people not the public authority.
  • The Trinidad and Tobago Freedom of Information Act 1999 is in fact one of the more powerful access to information laws worldwide as it does not provide for absolute exemptions. Section 35 provides for a public interest override even if one of the statutory exemptions applies to the information being requested.
  • Lawyers need to take more responsibility to do pro bono work on public interest litigation to support the citizens’ access to information.
  • Citizens should use the power of freedom of association within groups of likeminded individuals and NGOs to protect themselves against recrimination and reprisal.
  • Proactive public education programmes on citizenship and rights of citizens should be undertaken and in particular modalities for engaging young people in these conversations should be explored.
  • The FOI Unit of Trinidad and Tobago should itself be publishing records on FOI public authority compliance.

Participants were invited to state how they felt about freedom of expression, association and assembly and whether they can safely exercise these rights in Trinidad and Tobago

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For more information on how you can get involved and support the work of Disclosure Today – email info@disclosure.today