Saturday, July 9, 2011

Nation's New FOI Law Brings Celebration, Challenges

Press Release
Committee to Protect Journalists (New York)
7 July 2011

Lanre Idowu

There is a deserved celebration in the Nigerian media over the recently passed Freedom of Information Act, which provides citizens with broad access to public records and information held by a public official or institution. It is the climax of an 11-year struggle to pass such a law in the Nigerian parliament. Indeed, the call for such a law was first made under military rule, in 1993, when the Nigeria Union of Journalists, Civil Liberties Organisation, and the Media Rights Agenda began to clamor for it.

The law directs public institutions to ensure that the public's right of access to information shall not be prejudicially affected by the institutions' failure to publish any information under this subsection. Although Section 12 (1) excludes information that may be injurious to the conduct of Nigeria's international affairs and defense, no application for information shall be denied where "the public interest in disclosing the information outweighs whatever injury that disclosure would cause." In other words, the onus is on the public agency to establish why the information should not be released. There are provisions for seeking redress for denied applications and penalty for wrongful denials.

In endorsing the people's right to know, the FOI Act acknowledges that sovereignty belongs to them, and that the quality of information available in a community leverages the quality of their participation in public affairs. Extreme secrecy in governance and a poor information flow breeds suspicion and misunderstanding among the populace and prevents the necessary cooperation for development.

For the law to achieve its objectives of a more open and transparent society, the public must move beyond the current euphoria that the legislation is the cure-all for hoarding of information. There is urgent need to come to terms with the provisions of the law and the challenges to overcome if despondency is not to set in.

The first challenge is to reorient public officers to appreciate the new reality that information is a developmental tool that must be freely available. The second is to facilitate the administrative machinery to bridge the gulf between policy formulation and implementation. Third, considering the office of the attorney general is saddled with the responsibility of monitoring compliance of public institutions with the law and informing the National Assembly annually of progress so made, the personality of the occupant is crucial.

Fourth, since the attorney general is the president's appointee, much will depend on the vigilance of the legislature, the media and civil society groups. The legislature must demand that the attorney general be alert and responsive to the provisions of the law. The media must play up its educational role of explaining the provisions of the law to galvanize citizen action. It needs to creatively exploit the law to unleash the best traditions of investigative journalism to provide the day's intelligence thoughtfully and meaningfully.

Fifth, the lesson of the sustained agitation is that an organized people can always push through an idea whose time has come. Openness and transparency as they advance good governance are the minimum requirements in any decent society today. The coalition of interest groups that fought for the FOI Act has more work ahead, teaching the public how best to utilize the law.

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