Sunday 2nd Oct 2022
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Thila-Male' bridge

ICOM orders to disclose Thilamale' bridge agreement

Information Commissioner’s Office of the Maldives (ICOM) has ordered Ministry of National Planning, Housing and Infrastructure to disclose general terms of the agreement signed with India's AFCONS to develop a bridge in the Maldives.
The project is tasked to India’s AFCONS Infrastructure Ltd and details of the project has been under wraps.
Dhiyares had petitioned the office for disclosure on 22nd March 2022, regarding the project.
The Ministry’s Information Officer and Review Committee both had not responded to the request favorably. Then the paper challenged this at the ICOM.
In Tuesday’s hearing on the issue, Information Commissioner, Ahmed Ahid Rasheed said this was the third hearing on the issue. He disclosed that the Commission held a closed-door meeting with the Ministry of National Planning, Housing and Infrastructure on 7th August 2022, on the issue.
He added that the purpose of the meeting was to inquire the terms of confidentiality as quoted by the Ministry in their denial to disclose information. Following this meeting, the Commission, he said, had arrived at their conclusion,
  • Information requested by Dhiyares
  • - Conflict resolution due to the agreement and terms of arbitration
  • - All terms under which the agreement can be nullified
  • - Penalties if project remains unfinished by the timelines set in agreement
  • - Whether if AFCONS would be and to what extent would AFCONS would be responsible for any damages caused due to structural flaws after the project is completed
  • - Copy of first page of agreement and last page of agreement with all the signatories
When first petitioned, the Ministry had refused to disclose any information, citing that the agreement terms ban any and all forms of disclosure.

Commissioner Ahid said the confidentiality clause of the agreement was applicable to the information provided by the contractor. He said that all information marked or identified as “Confidential” must be seen as such, adding that the Commission noted two aspects.

“Firstly, they are referring to certain information among the information provided by the contractor, they are marked as confidential, can bee be seen as secretive. So, we need to ascertain if the items requested under disclosure falls under this aspect,” he said.

He added that some contracts included confidential clauses but they were instilled in there to prevent a third party from gleaning proprietary information exchanged between the two parties signing the agreement. This includes business secrets and aspects that can give a competitive advantage.

“Under such instances, information exchanged between the two parties need to be kept confidential. This information is different from the terms of the agreement,” he said.

Ahid went on to add general terms such as duration of agreement, price of agreement, and conflict resolution, were terms of agreement and not necessarily information exchanged between two parties.

“But, in agreements sometimes there is technical information. They are included as part of the agreement but they are originally shared between the two parties. The information requested pertains to terms of agreement,” Ahid said, challenging the government’s stance on disclosure.

Ahid added the information requested did not fall under this confidentiality aspect, as it is not part of information exchange or information supplied to the employer by the contractor. The information requested, he clarified, was terms of agreement.

The first page and the last page of the agreement with signatories, Ahid added, had no information that fell under confidentiality clause or under the information shared between two parties.

Ahid went on to add that signatures were on the second page of the agreement. The requested disclosure, Ahid said, was for the page with signatures. As such, if the page had signatures, then it should be verified and submitted for disclosure.

Based on these aspects, the Information Commissioner had decreed that the Ministry should release the information within a five-day period. He added the Ministry’s justifications not to release the information did not fall under any exemptions and should be disclosed.