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The FOI bill in perspective

THE axiom that government remains the media’s fair weather friend in our clime cannot find a better platform for demonstration than the macabre drama now staged around the refusal by the National Assembly to pass the Freedom of Information (FOI) Bill into law. But this was expected. In any closed, corruption-endemic system, no attempt to submit the status quo in whatsoever guise, would succeed like a duck on water, without meeting resistance from the forces that have kept the people in bondage.

Thus, the FOI Bill is perceived by the National Assembly, at least going by its original intendments, as a booby trap capable of torpedoeing their present stewardship and their future political careers. As the Senate power probe, and Patricia Etteh’s house renovation saga clearly showed, there are bundles of shady transactions wrapped in “official secrecy” at the National Assembly, that pass without any mention in the media.

Is it therefore, a thing of surprise that the FOI Bill spent seven years at the National Assembly under the Obasanjo civilian administration alone and when it was eventually passed for assent six months to the end of that administration, the president refused his assent citing security reasons and the title of the Bill as excuse?

One of the cardinal objectives of the FOI Bill is to create an enabling atmosphere for the entrenchment and sustenance of accountability in public office. Its basic trust is to facilitate unfettered access to statutorily unrestricted information in the public domain, empowering the public and civil society groups to hold officials accountable as well as creating opportunities for the people to be judge of whether or not their government officials are good stewards of public funds.

It must be noted that accountability in public office can only be guaranteed and when there is openness, transparency and “a-people-carrying-along” disposition in the process of governance. This requires elected or appointed officials to, from time to time, inform the people without padding, equivocation or prevarification, how much resources they receive on behalf of the people, how and on what they spend such resources, and how much it left in the public till.

Commonsensically, openness, which is the oxygen that sustains a democracy, is an important first-step in holding governments accountable for how they use the people’s money. What is regarded as openness is simply making public through the instrumentality of information dissemination. Information is the fuel which powers the engine of democracy, and the media are the conducting valves that transport this fuel to every part of the engine. And since the media trades in information, they ipso facto occupy a central position in creating and sustaining an open society.

It is with this realisation that the framers of the Constitution enshrined in section 22, that: “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.

An obvious stumbling block in the path of the media to consummate their constitutional mandate to uphold the responsibility and accountability of the government to the people is the battery of anti-progressive statutes that restrict access to information and hobble the ability of the people to hold public officials accountable. These statutes, like the archaic Official Secrets Act, promote secrecy and corruption in public offices, even as they hamstring the media from fulfilling that which the Constitution had empowered them to do.

In such a scenario, the necessity for an enabling law to guarantee unhindered access to information held by public offices becomes imperative, as it is the only means to ensure openness in governance. It is for this that the Media Rights Agenda (MRA) partnered other civil society groups to sponsor FOI Bill in 2000 for passage in the National Assembly. However, it is a sad testament that the journey of the bill, presented at four different times, has now assumed a life of its own.

Whereas, it is apposite to note that the media have no such power to impeach or remove public office holders, whether elected or not. The media’s role in a democracy is to serve as an optical lens or microscope of information through which the people know everything those exercising their mandate or consent (will) to govern, do. Differently put, the media are supposed to be a mirror reflecting all that public officers do, for the people to see, of course. By reason of this, the fear of the media is unfounded.

This is why Prof. Ralph Akinfeleye said this of the tug-of-war at the National Assembly over the FOI Bill before it: “It is very clear in the Constitution that the Press is not given the power of trial of public office holders on the pages of newspapers, magazines, radio or television. The constitutional duty given to the Press is that of monitoring and making public officers accountable to the people at all times”.

Saying this, the FOI Bill should not be mistaken for a media bill, even though it bears much saliency with the spiraling web of media functionality. In its undiluted form, FOI defines the process by which information or record under the control of a governmental agency or body is accessed. In other words, it is a legally enforceable right of a citizen to request information held by a governmental body.

This is the reason civil society organisations view it as an elixir for good governance in society and see those opposing the passage of the bill, as enemies of development who have something to hide.

With the benefit of historical hindsight, the ill-fated Nigerian FOI Bill resonates with fervour, and underscores the  fact that freedom of information acts (FOIAs) had never been won anywhere without a sustained and protracted fight. Even in the US from which the FOIA model was exported to other countries, it came about after much pressure from media groups and organisations, consumer groups, etc spanning 20 years from 1945 to 1965. The American Congress passed the FOIA in 1966.

Continues tomorrow

Mr. Alemu  is a  senior research with ACD Foundation.

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