Thursday, April 15, 2010

UK Withholds Gay Uganda File;
Green's Tatchell Reacts

The United Kingdom's Foreign and Commonwealth Office today replied to my appeal over their refusal earlier this year to release their gay Uganda file to me, after I made a Freedom of Information Act request.

No surprise really, that they have rejected my appeal. In the interests of sunshine, even when a government agency doesn't share copies of public documents, I'm posting excerpts from the UK rejection.

After the excerpts is a response from longtime international gay human rights advocate Peter Tatchell. I've made gays in Uganda aware of the UK decision to withhold the file, and continue to stand in solidarity with them.

From the Foreign and Commonwealth Office:

You requested an internal review of the decision, conveyed to you in our email of 22 January 2010, not to disclose information relating to gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender persons in Uganda dated between 1 January 2009 and 23 December 2009, under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (“the Act”).

We have conducted a full examination of all the material, both released and exempted, of relevance to your request, and I have concluded the following:

We searched through all of appropriate files in our government registry, the shared filing areas in our IT systems, and the personal electronic mail inboxes of those staff members who have been dealing with this issue.

The two exemptions that we cited in our email to you of 22 January 2010 were used correctly. We can explain further that information that has been withheld under Section 35 of the Act, regarding the disclosure of the identities of officials involved in the formulation and development of government policy-making. [...] We have judged that in this case, the public interest in maintaining this exemption outweighs the public interest in disclosure. [...]

In addition to the exemptions we cited, we also further judge that the remainder of the information that you requested within the scope of your request is exempt from release under Section 27(1) (a). This Section of the Act relates to information which, if disclosed, would be likely to harm international relations. [...]

However, in this instance some of the exempted information relates to an ongoing sensitive domestic policy issue in a sovereign state. In this case, the disclosure of information on our position on a domestic policy issue in another sovereign country could potentially damage the bilateral relationship, which would reduce the UK government’s ability to protect and promote UK interests. [...]

In response to the first of the specific queries, regarding the format and extent of information that we may hold, we are not obliged under the Freedom of Information Act to disclose this data.

In addition, we consider your third specific request to release documents that we hold within the terms of your request, even if they are blacked out (redacted) in their entirety, to be vexatious. [...]

And this is the full reply sent earlier today from London by Peter Tatchell:

This is the standard way the British government operates in response to any "sensitive" (ie effective) Freedom of Information request. It pleads "national security" and "diplomatic relations." Most FOI requests are a waste of time. I rarely bother with them. The UK does not have genuine Freedom of Information. This blocking of FOI requests is part of our government's sustained subversion of civil liberties and public accountability - which is why I will not be voting Labour
(or Tory or Liberal Democrat) on 6 May.

I am voting Green. See their Manifesto here. Far more radical than any other party by a mile, on LGBT (and other) issues. I am their Human Rights Spokesperson.

I don't know where Peter gets the energy to carry out his global gay duties, on top of regular gay activism within the United Kingdom, and now also serving as a key spokesperson for the Greens.

On the matter of the UK's FOI law and the FCO, there is much room for improving release of documents, without harming diplomacy or a person's security. Blanket withholding as in this instance is unacceptable, especially when the agency holding the responsive records, and not releasing them, is the same agency rejecting my appeal. At minimum, an authority outside the FCO should look into such rejections.

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