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Official information process comes under public eye

Wednesday 1 April 2009 | Published in National


Wednesday 1: Government officials, organisations and community members gained greater understanding of the Official Information Act last week through several meetings and workshops.

Organised by the Cook Islands Ombudsman’s Office, consultation meetings were held with the vaka areas in Rarotonga and with special interest groups. Visiting experts Angie Heffernan of the Pacific Centre for Public Integrity and Claire Cronin of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative were on hand to share their experiences of freedom of information acts and explain to Cook Islanders what the OIA means to them.

The ombudsman says the Puaikura meeting was a positive experience with a suggestion made for the government to extend the OIA to other bodies that handle community affairs such as sports organisations, clubs and even churches or religious organisations.

“For the ombudsman it was a highlight for that suggestion to come from a community member,” assistant ombudsman Jeannine Daniel says.

Heffernan and Cronin also answered questions relating to the privacy of personal information and people trying to find out information about individuals under the guise of the OIA.

Heffernan says the community meetings were successful in the quality of questions people asked. A training workshop was also held for NGOs where discussion of the OIA was fantastic, Daniel says.

“One NGO has already made a request with one of the ministries and was really impressed with the whole procedure and how helpful the official was,” she says.

Last Friday New Zealand barrister, lecturer and former journalist Steven Price held a group workshop which included media, heads of ministries, chief executives and Chamber of Commerce.

Price is expert on the New Zealand OIA which the Cook Islands counterpart is closely modelled on.

A Berkeley journalism graduate in United States, Price explained the benefits of the OIA from a reporter and a legal point of view.

In a media workshop held on Saturday, which only Cook Islands News attended, Price delved into how New Zealand journalists have used the act to gain vital information for their stories.

Price gave invaluable advice on what types of official information media can request, how to deal with request refusals and when to go the ombudsman.

He says the OIA was not designed with journalists in mind, however it was an important tool for information to be “out in the open” and available for those in the Cook Islands. - DK