AFTER all the efforts to get the Freedom of Information Act, FoIA, it is frustrating to most parties that the media are not using the Act to improve public access to information. It is easy to blame the media journalists for not being enterprising. Many have taken that curious position, without recognising defects in the FoIA.
The FoIA is not for journalists alone. The misconception it would grant journalists excessive powers, for the benefit of the media, to the detriment of the larger society, was mostly responsible for the 12 years the bill was tossed round the National Assembly.
It is the same misunderstanding that totally excluded the most critical aspects of our national life, the economy and environment, from the purview of the FoIA. They are seen as “national interests” to be protected from the media’s scrutiny.
FoIA gives every Nigerian the right to hold our governments accountable. Most of the accountability focus is on the government in Abuja though transparency is on vacation at all levels of government.
The media have constitutionally stated roles that the FoIA whittled down. Section 22 of the Constitution states, “The press, radio, television and other agencies of the mass media shall at all times be free to uphold the fundamental objectives contained in this Chapter and uphold the responsibility and accountability of the government to the people.”
Section 22 is in Chapter II, which captures the fundamental objectives and directive principles of state policy. Among its most famous and most ignored portions are Section 14 (2) (a) sovereignty belongs to the people of Nigeria from whom government through this Constitution derives all its powers and authority; (b) the security and welfare of the people shall be the primary purpose of government: and (c) the participation by the people in their government shall be ensured in accordance with the provisions of this Constitution.
The same system that excluded its important sectors from scrutiny finds pleasure in criticising journalists for not using the FoIA. The same system that recognises only sections of the Constitution that favour it criticises non-implementation of FoIA.
Professor Chidi Odinkalu, Chairman of Nigeria’s Human Rights Commission, in recent remarks said a combination of the Environmental Impact Assessment Act, the Fiscal Responsibility Act and FoIA creates rights with respect to information on fiscal and environmental management. He is partially rights.
Rights these Acts provide are token. The economy and environment are protected from the powers of the FoIA. Moreover, attitudes that guide implementation of the FoIA tend to see the media as enemies of society.
To fulfil its constitutional roles, the media should work harder to rein governments into obeying the Constitution. FoIA is insufficient arsenal for that battle.