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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

A vivid example of the depth of the secrecy around government offices and the extent to which these laws were observed in colonial Nigeria is revealed in the following. ”The Franks Report on Section 2 of the Official Secrets Act 1911 states —– Section 2, the subject-matter of the departmental committee under the chairmanship of Lord Franks, is concerned with the leakage of official information. The main offence which it creates is the unauthorised communication of official information by a Crown servant. There are five situations in which other persons apart from Crown Servants are caught by Section 2; for example, any person in possession of official information “which has been made or obtained in contravention” of the Official Secrets Act is prohibited from making any unauthorised disclosure of that information. Section 2 is widely drafted, embracing all types of official information without any discrimination. The civil servant who discloses the number of cups of tea consumed in his office is guilty of an offence under Section 2.” With the foregoing, it is therefore not surprising how difficult it was to introduce a paradigm shift in ideas and traditions that had been entrenched in government circles pre and post- independence.
During the military era it was an offence to publish what was considered to be information damaging to the image of the government of the day. This led to the promulgation of decrees which landed journalists behind bars for example, the 1984 celebrated case of Tunde Thompson and Nduka Irabor. These journalists were jailed for flouting the Buhari Administration’s Decree No. 4 which prohibited publication of government information. The military era was largely defined by acts of repression against the citizenry, the flow of information was stifled and there was palpable tension in the society. The lack of free information encouraged rumours, innuendos and outright falsehood.
Nigeria’s Freedom of Information Act was the result of long campaigns by civil society groups and media organizations to impress upon the government that Nigeria should adopt an open society as a plank towards being a successful democracy. The Act was conceived in 1993 by three organizations: Media Rights Agenda, Civil Liberties (CLO) and the Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ). The objective of the campaign was to “lay down as a legal principle the right of access to documents and information in the custody of the government or its officials and agencies as a necessary corollary to the guarantee of freedom of expression. It was also aimed at creating mechanisms for the effective exercise of this right.” The process underwent a broad consultative process of the various interest groups that are affected by the “availability or otherwise of a legally-protected right of access to government-held information”.
In 1994, the Access to Official Information Act was produced and this draft became the predecessor of the current Freedom of Information Bill. It was submitted to the National Assembly in 1999. Sadly it did not become law despite being passed by the National Assembly. President Olusegun Obasanjo in the last days of his administration refused to sign the bill into law over objections to some clauses in the bill. The delay in the passage of the bill appears to be due to the fear entertained that the media would be given too much power to probe the activities of those in government.
Over the years the campaign for law and right of access to information found itself with many unlikely allies. It would be recalled that one of the strong proponents of the cause was Professor Jerry Gana a one-time spokesman for the Babangida Administration who noted wryly that “No state can achieve any meaningful development if the citizens do not have access to information about matters that affect their everyday life. It is indeed fundamental in any democratic government.” To all intents and purposes the campaign won much acclaim from interest groups across all sectors. There was widespread petition over the undue delay in passing the Bill into Law. It argued in part “failure to enact the Bill into Law undermines democratic and accountable governance by denying us our fundamental right to know and participate fully in the government of our country”. This was spear-headed by Mr. Edetaen Ojo Executive Director of Media Rights Agenda (MRA) the petition initiative attracted staunch support from Lawyers, Nigerian Guild of Editors, Persons with Disabilities Action Network, Medical and Health Workers’ Union of Nigeria amongst others. On September 24, 2007, former governor of Ogun State, Otunba Gbenga Daniel was one of the first to append his signature to the petition calling on the National Assembly to pass the Fol Bill into Law before the end of 2007.

Fol Act in Nigeria
Much to the delight of many Nigerians and applaud from the international community, the Bill after languishing before the National Assembly since 1999 was finally passed and signed into Law by President Goodluck Jonathan on Saturday 28th May 2011. From that moment onwards, Nigeria joined the ranks of the countries that believe that an open government is good for governance. After the initial excitement, many Nigerians waited to see the law implemented and also began to wonder about the efficacy of the law and how it would work in practice? According to the law “persons had the right to request for or gain access to information which was in the custody or possession of any public official agency or institution.”

Broader aspects of the law include the following:
> “To make public records and information more freely available
> to provide for public access to public records and information
to protect public records and information to the extent which is consistent with the public interest and the protection of personal privacy.
To protect public officers from adverse consequences for disclosing certain kind of official information without authorization and
> To establish procedure for the achievement of these purposes.”
At the moment there are cases before the Nigerian courts on public agencies that have ignored request by members of the public for information. According to the Fol Coalition, a group of media rights organizations, to date there are about ten cases already instituted in various Nigerian courts to compel agencies to supply information on request. A recent instance of putting the strength of the law to test arose when the Nigerian Union of Journalists revealed that it has sued the FCT Minister Senator Bala Mohammed, and the Mandate secretary of the Social Development Secretariat (SDS) of the FCT Administration, Mrs. Blessing Onuh to court over the failure of the two to “disclose information on income, expenditure, funding of NGOs rehabilitation of prostitutes, hawkers and beggars by their office.” It also requested for detailed information about the activities of the SDS. According to a release by NUJ, it had written to SDS on October 14, 2011 seeking the information as required by the law in Section 20 and sections 6, 7, 8. A similar case of trying to hold government agencies to account is the move by Socio Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) to compel the Petroleum Products Pricing Regulatory Agency (PPPRA) to disclose up-to- date information on government/public spending relating to fuel subsidy in 2011. The agencies concerned are yet to supply the information requested. It would be recalled that earlier this month, the British Prime Minister, David Cameron was requested under the Fol laws to provide information on” details of changes to the bathroom and any instructions given to the contractors” relating to the refurbishment on his official residence, 10 Downing Street and he promptly obliged. This provides an example of the type of information that may be keep the British taxpayers in the know about how public funds are spent.
Nigeria’s Fol law is new and perhaps government’s enthusiasm to see the law work and to dispel the view that it is paying Hp-service to it may be the reason for the recent inauguration of the Inter-Ministerial Committee set up to implement the Fo Act w[thin the Federal Civil Service. Public institutions are required to ensure that all their records and information are preserved. Amongst other duties the Committee is to “study the operational guidelines and develop modalities for service-wide MDAs, to prepare the road map for sensitization, enlightenment, and training for MDAs and relevant stakeholders as provided for in the Act. Interestingly, the Committee is to develop framework modalities for benchmarking the MDAs on the implementation of the Act. This implies that the MDAs are to give an account of themselves as to how they have obeyed the law and provided information when requested. This can be said to be a method of monitoring how responsive agencies have been as far as the law is concerned. The move by the Federal Government must be replicated at the state and local government levels if the Act is to achieve its objectives. It is not yet Uhuru and the work of the Fol Coalition and civil society in general is not complete. The States and Local governments need to be aggressively lobbied to domesticate the Act as part of their role in transforming the states and local governments. This is to ensure that records are kept safe and secure while information about their programmes and projects are readily available for public scrutiny.
Enquiries by the media and other interested persons into the workings of government can assist to ensure the restoration of efficient and effective service delivery in public service. This means that government agencies and institutions will be kept on their toes. The bane of the Nigerian state is that government agencies have been conducting their business detached from the citizenry. All the information the public possess solely comes from the government itself. Hence to some extent there is a disconnect between government and the governed. The Fol Act seeks to bridge this crucial gap by giving members of the public access to information on government activities from a variety of independent sources or request for it directly. The public no longer has to rely totally on the government to provide information from state-owned agencies which may be subject to manipulation or inaccuracy.
Conclusion
In a nutshell, the Freedom of Information laws serve as a tool to build and strengthen transparency and accountability in governance at the three tiers. It should and can reduce corruption in government agencies and institutions. It is possible for the Act to bring to light unsavoury behaviour in public service.
Perhaps due to the novelty of the Law in Nigeria, it is yet to achieve an appreciable levelof success. However, there are a few concerns that the law may be misused by journalists. Governor Theodore Orji of Abia State recently advised journalists not to “use the Fol Act to witch-hunt perceived enemies in leadership positions”, rather he urged that the law be used towards achieving “good governance and accountability.” Speaking in a similar vein, Hon. Abike DabiriErewa a former journalist and a Member of the Federal House Representatives also cautioned the media on the use of the law. She called on journalists not to “hide under the Freedom of Information Act to violate the ethics of the profession or malign individuals or institutions.” The concerns expressed over the unwholesome motives of some journalists while hiding under the law have been expressed elsewhere too.
The UK Freedom of Information Act 2000 is not without its critics. The former Prime Minister Tony Blair referred to it as “one of the biggest mistakes in my career. The information is neither sought because the journalist is curious to know, nor given to bestow knowledge on the people, it is used as a weapon.” Labour Peer Lord Falconer criticized the use of the Act by journalists for “fishing expeditions into salacious stories.” He noted that “Fol is not for press; it is for people. It needs to be properly used in order to promote good government. Information needs to be handled properly.” Ultimately information sought for must be in the overall interest of the public and not for malicious intentions.
A popular saying is; “Knowledge is power”. Knowledge comes through information, hence information is power. Power itself is a double edged sword. Access to information is a fundamental right guaranteed under Section 39 of the Nigerian Constitution, however, we must constantly remind ourselves that every right, nay every power must be executed utmost restraint and responsibility lest we fall into the error of abuse.
I thank you for listening. ###

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