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Freedom of Information Act: The Role of the Media in National Development

Freedom of Information Act: The Role of the Media in National Development
Text of the paper delivered by Sen. Olorunnimbe Mamora, Guest Speaker at the Rivers State NUJ 2011 Press week Date: November 21, 2011

Thank you for graciously inviting me as the Guest Speaker at this year’s Press Week of your esteemed body, here at the garden city of Port Harcourt.
I understand the NUJ Press week is an annual programme that brings together men and women of the pen profession to rub minds on issues that affect them. It is also a forum to honour distinguished media practitioners and Nigerians who have made contributions to the upliftment of humanity.
No doubt, these are noble and commendable objectives. The theme of this year’ “Freedom of Information Act: The Role of the Media in National Development” is apt. In the words of Thomas Jefferson, “information is the currency of democracy”
The role of the media in national development is critical as a core part of building a respectable society. The media as the watchdog and moulder of opinion in society, is regarded as the searchlight to front-end good governance, best practices and ethics through the beaming of light on activities in public and private sectors. Hence it is no surprise that in the campaign for Freedom of Information law, the media were in the forefront to consistently lobby government to jettison unnecessary secrecy of its activities and enact a law which would serve as a constant reminder to those elected to power that they are accountable to the people. Freedom of Information thrives on the refrain that open government is good government. It is a key avenue for securing transparency and openness; defining features of modern democracy. An open society brings about greater understanding in the public space of what the government does; it erodes suspicion about government and builds trust and confidence in governance. By the same token, it reduces the tendency for impropriety in public office. Public finances and expenditure are open to public scrutiny and there is less room for misappropriation and misapplication of funds. This is critical aspect especially in climes where corruption is rife and endemic. It derives from the belief that access to information is a fundamental civil right. Ultimately it seeks to promote good governance by making public bodies reveal their activities on request.
The concept of open society as a platform for modern democracy and public trust is by no means a new phenomenon. Justice Louis Dembitz Brandeis (1856-1941), an Associate Justice on the US Supreme Court famously said: “Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best disinfectant; electric light the most efficient policeman.” Sunshine government has become a permanent feature in the American journey to perfect its democracy. Open meetings, open records and transparency are instruments in the US democratic process which have legal backing and which define its view of an open society.

Global perspectives on Fol
Freedom of information legislations have been implemented by 85 countries. The oldest piece of legislation in this regard in the world is Sweden’s Freedom of the Press Act of 1786. In Britain the freedom to access government information is just an 11 year-old practice; finally coming into force in 2005. The Freedom of Information Act 2000 in Britain was one of the Labour party’s campaign promises to end the culture of secrecy in government. Prior to that time, the UK had no law compelling public bodies to provide information to the public. What it had instead is what is known as the ‘thirty year rule’. The Freedom of Information Act 2000 in effect put paid to the ‘thirty year rule’ which provided that the “yearly cabinet papers of a government will be released publicly thirty years after they were created.” Britain became the 52 country in the world to introduce the FoI law which is legislation to make information freely available to citizens. It creates ‘right of access’ to information held by public authorities.
Its operations are overseen by the Officer of the Information Commissioner. The Information Commissioner has the power to order disclosure if it receives an application from a member of the public that a request was wrongly refused. Prior to it becoming a law there was no right of access to government information by the general public save for a Code of Practice on access to government information of 1994 which was a limited practice of sharing information. The journey to the Act included a 1998 white paper titled ‘Your right to know’ and parliamentary debates. Essentially the Act was part of Manifesto commitment by the Labour Party in the run-up to the 1997 election. The Act came into reality in January 2005. Speaking in November 2008, the Information Commissioner, Mr. Richard Thomas said: “We have a right to know what the government is doing with our money in our pubiic organizations, and that has resonated with the public.” Specifically, the Act allows a general right of access, on request to information held by public authorities. It must be mentioned that though the law affects over 100,000 public authorities including government departments, schools and councils, a few government departments are expressly excluded from this act, one of such is the Intelligence Services. It creates access to information in relation to bodies that exercise functions of a public nature. Three different kinds of bodies are covered under the act: Public Authorities, publicly owned companies and designated bodies performing public functions. They have 20 working days to respond to a request. On receipt of a request, a public authority has two corresponding duties to do: First in accordance with Section 1 (1) (a) a duty to inform the member of the public whether or not it holds the information requested and second in accordance with Section 1 (1) (b) if it does hold that information to communicate it to the person making the request. The Act places a duty on public authorities to “adopt and maintain proactive ‘publication schemes’ for the routine release of important information.” These include annual reports and accounts which provide details on finances and expenditure.
United States of America
The Freedom of Information in the United States is a federal freedom of information law that “allows for the full or partial disclosure of previously unreleased information and documents controlled by the US government.
The Act defines agency records subject to disclosure, outlines mandatory disclosure procedures and grants nine exemptions. Passed by President Lyndon Johnson in 1966, it applies to what is known as ‘executive branch government agencies.” It requires agencies to “make public and accessible all bureaucratic and technical procedures for applying for documents from that agency. Agencies are also subject to penalties for hindering the process of a petition for information.” Essentially it was considered a major step in “shinning the sun on the workings of government.” Writing in Yale Law and Policy Review an article titled ‘Reducing Government Secrecy: Finding What Works’ Steven Aftergood, the Director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the federation of American Scientists, notes that: “Whether it concerns matters of high policy such as the decision to go to war, or the smallest allocation of taxpayer funds, the free flow of information to interested members of the public is a prerequisite to their participation in the deliberative process and to their ability to hold elected officials accountable”
The policy of open government in the US is pursued with a great degree of commitment. The Obama Administration has declared that “openness is the Federal Government’s default position for FOIA issues”. To protect transparency in Government, every state in the US has some variety of laws mandating that all government business be conducted in open meetings to which the public has access. These are sometimes known as the “sunshine laws or open government laws.”

In France, public servants are required by the Constitution to be accountable. According to the Declaration of the rights of Man and of the Citizen, citizens can demand a copy of administrative document. Several other countries have a variety of laws which allow the public to have access to government information.

The journey to government transparency in Africa is still in progress, During the 50th Session of the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights held at the Sheraton Hotel and Spa in Brufut, The Gambia, the Working Group on African Platform on Access to Information (APAI), on the 29th of October 2011, urged all the African Governments to endeavour to pass a law on access to information. According to African Platform on Access to Information (APAI), “90 countries around the world have adopted Access to Information laws, out of this, 10 are in Africa. These are South Africa, Liberia, Uganda, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Tunisia, Guinea-Conakry, Niger, Angola and Zimbabwe.” The Conference adopted a landmark Declaration, the African Platform on Access to Information and called for action which reiterates the centrality of access to information, its importance in the promotion and protection of fundamental human rights in advancing democratic values and accountability and sustainable development. One of the outcomes of the session includes the “Passing a resolution requesting the AU Heads of State Summit of January 2012 to adopt September28 as an International Right to Information Day.”

The passing of the Fol Act in Nigeria did not happen overnight. The culture of secrecy was deeply entrenched in the civil service. Public officers were bound by the Secrecy Oath to keep government secrets, a practice passed down by the colonial administrators. Indeed statutes which promoted a culture of secrecy in all government bodies were given legal backing by laws such as the Official Secrets Act. The Official Secrets Ordinance of 1891 was passed to “prevent civil servants from disclosing classified government secrets to the press.” The following laws regulated the possession and dissemination of official information:
(i) Official Secrets Ordinances, 1911
(ii) Official Secrets Act, 1962
(iii) Official Secrets (amendment) Act, 1962
(iv) Western Nigeria Official Secrets law, 1959 .

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