Over three years after the Jonathan administration passed into law the Freedom of Information bill, Raheem Akingbolu looks at the clamour that greeted its passage and the reluctance of media practitioners to access information through the law
Few years ago, the clamour for the passage of the Freedom of Information (FoI), bill by stakeholders was like a dream that would never come through. But shortly after President Goodluck Jonathan was sworn in, the dream became a reality. He signed the bill into law.
For Nigerian journalists, lawyers and other stakeholders who believed that the act would enhance transparency, the decision was hailed. Three years after, media practitioners, who ordinarily should be the primary beneficiaries of the development appear to be shying away from its application.
Because of the sensitivity of the new law and the years recorded before it crossed the hurdle, the singular act turned the president and his team to instant heroes, within and outside the shores of Nigeria.
As a result of the development, the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) had quickly urged the government of their country and Parliament to follow the example of Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan and pass into law the Freedom of Information Act, which according to a report, had been gathering dust in the Parliament after several years of hard work by stakeholders.
However, among other issues; there were fears in some quarters the moment the law was passed that it could be abused, disregard by public servants or be amended later by the political class to protect some personal interests.
Three Years after…
Few years after, the political class has surprisingly left the law intact but Nigerians who demanded it have tactically ignored it. According to a former Vice Chairman of the Lagos State chapter of the Nigerian Institute of Public Relations, Ms. Bolanle Olatunde-Bruce, the failure of the media to work with the act has created a crisis in the polity.
“What we live with daily in Nigeria is simply half-truths, just because those who should feed us with the facts and figures have abandoned their duties. Having been in the media industry in the past I can’t imagine what such law would have helped us to achieve during my days in the newsroom. It is amazing these days when some cliques mischievously speak about corruption to score cheap political goals with little or no effort by journalists to put the record straight.”
Meanwhile, the Director of the International Press Centre (IPC), Mr. Lanre Arogundade, had dismissed the insinuation that the law could be abused by journalists.
In an interview with THISDAY shortly after the bill was passed, he said, “The fear of abuse should not arise at all, though I agree that anything could be abused but with the well spelt out procedure of the FoI, it is not possible to be abused by any member of the public. Here, we are talking of simple principle of demand and supply, members of the public, including journalists, fall under demand while public institutions, that have the information in their custody fall under supply. If we are talking of abuse, I think it can only come from the supply side, because they can distort or withhold against the provision of the law.”
Lamenting the situation in the past, when Nigerians would not be able to know the exact figure of annual oil sales, the IPC Chief said; “Hardly has there been any year when we get accurate figure of our oil sales. The result from the NNPC would be different from the one that would come from the Federal Office of Budget. But with this law in place, one is not in doubt that things would change for better.
Beyond its positive contribution to media practice, Arogundade also said the law would help Nigeria strengthen her democratic profile. “You can’t have good governance without democratic accountability. With this law, which gives electorates right of access to records, leaders would be made accountable. The strength of it will be when an ordinary citizen goes to his local government to ask about budget or project implemented. By this, it will enhance public participation, which is good for our democracy
Thrust of the Act…
With the law in place, any public institution that fails to provide information to persons entitled to the right of information under the Freedom of Information law can be sued by the persons seeking for the information, compelling it to comply with the provisions of the law.
Before it was signed into law by the president, A copy of the harmonised version of the bill, stipulates under Section 1, Sub-section 3 of the new law that, “Any person entitled to the right of information under this Act, shall have the right to institute proceedings in the Court to compel any public institution to comply with the provision of this Act.”
Accordingly, Section 2, Sub-section 1 of the new legislation compels “A public institution to ensure that it keeps records and keeps information about all its activities, operations and businesses.”
The law further requires public institutions to “ensure that information referred to in this section is widely disseminated and made readily available to members of the public through various means, including print, electronic and online sources, and at the offices of such public institutions.”
Institutions are further required to update and review information required to be published under the law, periodically and immediately whenever changes occur.
The FOI Bill describes public institutions as all authorities, whether executive, legislative or judicial agencies, ministries, and extra-ministerial departments of government, together with all corporations established by law and all companies in which the government has controlling interest, and private companies utilising public funds, providing public services or performing public functions.
A Lagos Lawyer, Mr. Kazeem Salaudeen, who claimed to have studied the act very well pointed out its merit but expressed his concern over the nonchalant attitude of Nigerians towards acquainting themselves with its details to be able to understand the process.
“All over the world, such law helps both the government and the governed in the area of trust and having confidence in each other but unfortunately, an average Nigerian is careless about his or her right, thereby allowing themselves to be punched left and right. I expected that after the bill became law, the quality of reportage in the media would be better but not much has been done by Nigerian journalists to up the ante. Little by little, investigative journalism is dying without any attempt to rescue it,” he said.
Salawu, who commended the current administration for yielding to public demand in passing the law, called on members of the public especially the media, being the watch dog of the society to rise up to the occasion and fully explore the opportunity.
Tortuous Routes to Passage
Since 1999, when the journey began, the bill held the record of being the oldest legislation to pass through the legislative process in the National Assembly. Aside the fact that it encountered stiff resistance from successive administrations starting from former President
Olusegun Obasanjo, former members of the parliament, had struggled hard to scuttle its passage.
The closest the bill came to enactment was in 2007, when it was passed by both chambers of the legislature and sent to Obasanjo for assent, but he refused to sign the bill. Today the rest is history but nothing seems to have changed.