BY OKEY NDIRIBE, ASST. POLITICAL EDITOR
A NEW dawn has arrived in Nigeria with President Goodluck Jonathan’s signing of the Freedom of Information (FOI) bill into law last Saturday. During an election debate last March, President Jonathan had pledged to sign the bill into law whenever the National Assembly finished its work on it. The FOI Bill was first presented before the National Assembly in 1999. It was passed by the previous House of Representatives in 2004 and by the Senate in November 2006, but was not signed into law by former President Olusegun Obasanjo before the end of his tenure in 2007. In 2008, the bill was reintroduced in both the Senate and the House of Representatives.
The Freedom of Information Coalition FOIC had embarked on a sensitization campaign among members of the public and this led to one of the greatest debates Nigerians have ever been engaged in. To a very large extent this sensitisaion paid off and swayed public opinion in favour of the bill, which was labeled the media bill in many quarters.
Observers of national affairs noticed that the popularity of the bill in the public domain appeared to have elicited hostility towards it from several quarters. It would be recalled that at a stage, the House of Representatives threw it out and barred it from being re-presented on the floor of the lower federal legislature.
On its own part, the Senate which decided to reconsider the bill, diluted some of its essential provisions. Indeed, the Senate Media and Information Committee had recommended in section two of its own version that “Every citizen of the Federal Republic of Nigeria has a legally enforceable right to, and shall, on application be given access to any information or record under the control of a government or public institution or private companies performing public functions, provided the disclosure of such information or release of such record(s) shall not compromise national security and the applicant shall have satisfied a State or Federal High Court of the need for the disclosure of such information or release of such record(s).
It was believed in several quarters that this proviso made Bill dead on arrival.
This notwithstanding, the upper House was believed to have retraced its steps on the bill later. Indeed, the newly signed FOI Act seems to have satisfied the yearnings and aspirations of all stakeholders in the media industry.
For instance, the Nigeria Union of Journalists was full of praises for President Jonathan for signing the bill into law.
Speaking to Vanguard in a telephone interview last Thursday the President of the NUJ said the President’s gesture was a healthy development for the entire nation.
Said he: “If you look at the history of the bill, and its passage into law it is virtually impossible for us to get 100 percent of what we demanded to be passed”.
He remarked that the most important thing now was that the bill had been passed into law adding that the NUJ was already studying all the provisions of the new Act with a view to taking a position on it.
“After studying the Act very well, we shall call for a stakeholders meeting to discuss and critically analyse the bill and the Act” he said.
He further stated that the observations of stakeholders after such analysis would be presented to both chambers of the National Assembly for possible amendments in the future.
Said he: “ The signing of the bill into law is a very good development for the media industry and also for Nigeria as a whole. This is because the access to information is very fundamental for any democratic government”.
He further explained that the Act would be beneficial to both the media and individual citizens in the larger society.
According to him: “Residents of a local community can even apply for information on the cost of constructing a small feeder road or water bore-hole . In this case, it would be the responsibility of the Local Government to provide the required information”
He maintained that the Act would promote accountability and transparency in government.
The Executive Director of International Press Centre, Lagos Mr Lanre Arogundade partially shares the NUJ leader’s view. Speaking during a telephone interview he granted to Vanguard last Thursday, he said the new Act met the expectations of the FOI Coalition which had spearheaded the campaign for the bill to be passed into law.
He observed that : “One of the disturbing developments about the bill had to do with the earlier version that was passed by the Senate which provided that a public servant would be given 30 days within which he should provide information that had been applied for.”
He expressed satisfaction that the in the version of the bill which was eventually signed into law by President Jonathan, only seven days were provided for a public servant as time limit within which he must furnish any information that has been applied for adding that this was in line with the content of the original provision of the bill.
Said he: “Even though it may not be a perfect document as it is, we would monitor its implementation and try to find a solution to loopholes that may be identified along the way. We could then approach the National Assembly again to look into such areas”.
Many other groups in the media industry have showered encomiums on President Jonathan for endorsing the bill. The Nigerian Guild of Editors stated that it received the news of the assent of the President to the FOI “with gratitude to a President, who has kept his words.”
A statement issued by its President, Mr Gbenga Adefaye, who is also the Editor-in-Chief of Vanguard Newspapers, NGE stated : “President Jonathan had, during the last Presidential debate, made a public commitment to sign the FOI bill into law once presented to him by the National Assembly as a personal commitment to openness, transparency, accountability and good governance. President Jonathan has really started well with this sign-post for good governance.”
Adefaye further stated that: “By signing the FOI bill into law, the President has more than anyone else, empowered the citizens to participate in the governance of their own affairs. The people can now legitimately seek public information, corroborate their facts and make useful suggestions towards achieving greater good for the majority. With access to information, citizens can fight corruption and confront the few who misappropriate our resources for themselves alone.”
Another group – Human Rights Nigeria, HRN- has also reportedly commended President Jonathan for signing the bill into law, adding that “this gesture signposts his commitment to tackle corruption in the country.”
HRN, a network of over 120 civil society and non- governmental organizations, working on human rights in Nigeria, in a statement by its Secretary, Mrs. Itoro Eze-Anaba, also commended the National Assembly for passing the FoI bill despite pressure from several political quarters to frustrate it.
The group also commended journalists, Media Rights Agenda, the Freedom of Information Coalition, and other partners who worked assiduously since 1999 when the bill was first presented to the National Assembly.
The group also called on the Federal Ministry of Justice that has the responsibility to ensure compliance by public and concerned private bodies to take immediate steps to set up the necessary machinery for the full implementation of the bill.
Indeed, some observers of events in the country have opined that the implementation of the law would introduce more openness in governance and consequently drastically reduce the incidence of corruption in public offices in the country. It is widely believed by experts and Nigerians in general that reduction in the corruption malaise which has afflicted Nigeria for decades would significantly boost the democracy dividends accruing to the people. Already over 85 countries around the world have implemented some form of the FOI legislation. Sweden’s Freedom of the Press Act of 1766 is the oldest in the world.