‘Why review of information law is desirable’
The Deputy Executive Director, Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP), Olukayode Majekodunmi has canvassed a review of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) so that the about 10 sections of the law, which dwell on non-disclosure of information could be amended.
While the desirability of the amendment is not in doubt, Dean, College of Social and Management Science (COSOMAS), Caleb University, Imota, Lagos, Prof. Nosa Owens-Ibie and Chairman, Board of Governors, FOI Coalition, Dr. Walter Duru stressed the need “to first assess how well the law has changed the landscape which defined its necessity based on real scenario of implementation since its enactment almost five years ago.”
Speaking on the use of FOIA by media and civil society in the quest for transparency in Nigeria, in Lagos, during a tweet-a-thon conference put together by the International Press Centre, (IPC) with support of the Public Affairs Section, US Consulate General, Lagos, Majekodunmi said it was important that the Act is reviewed especially sections on exemptions because it is defeating the purpose for which the law was enacted. He also argued that conflicting laws to the FOI Act must be repealed directly because these laws are contrary to the provisions of the FOIA especially Section 28 of the Act, which impliedly provides for the amendment or outright repeal of such conflicting laws.
Though he stated that there is need for more public enlightenment on the usage of the Act and the Judiciary should be more engaged to help in the implementation of the Act, he maintained that the import of the Act is yet to be appreciated by many Nigerians.
In the reckoning of Prof. Owens-Ibie, a systematic study is required to track levels of access “so the way forward could be better charted to achieve the goals of good governance, and desirable change.”
For Dr. Duru, amendment shouldn’t be a priority at the moment. “We are more interested in testing the law, with a view to identifying all the gaps. It is only when the Act is properly tested that a robust and informed amendment proposal will be effective.”
The loopholes noticed in the Act promulgated on May 28, 2011, FOI Coalition Chairman said, could be attributed to many years of debate the Bill underwent at the legislative chambers. “It was so opposed that at a point, we were just interested in having an FOI Act (even if it were watered down). Now that we have one, we can begin to talk of amendment(s),” he said.
Some of the steps being taken by the Coalition to ensure effective implementation of the law, according to Dr. Duru, include the upgrade to a full department the FOI unit in the Federal Ministry of Justice (FMOJ), which is the co-ordinating Ministry for FOIA.
“While other countries have independent agencies that see to FOI implementation, we are still battling to have the FMOJ’s unit upgraded to a Department, with budgetary provisions. We are also working to ensure that all ministries, departments, and agencies (MDAs) of government have FOI units/desks to ensure timely and effective handling of FOI issues,” he noted.
“Ultimately, we shall push for an amendment, but of immediate interest to us is the vigorous implementation of the law. This we are pursuing, in collaboration with relevant stakeholders,” Duru said.
At the IPC event, Majekodunmi made reference to the newspaper report published recently in The Guardian, saying “over 90 per cent of public institutions violates Section 29 that mandates submission of Report on every February 1 with National Assembly, EFCC, NNPC, security agencies worst culprits,” just as there are no sanctions for non-compliant agencies.
On the challenges in the implementation of the Act, he said that the time limit provided for granting or refusal to grant requests as provided in Section 4 of the Act is seen by keen observers as too short and the applicability of the FOI Act in the States are some of the bottlenecks confronting the Act.
Participants later engaged Majekodunmi’s presentation while an in-depth historical background on the birth of the FOI Act around the world was provided.
Attention of journalists was however drawn to the general assumption that CSOs have been more active, while the media has been passive both as practitioners who seek to access public information and records as well as public institutions responding to FOI requests.
The media was therefore urged to embrace the critical role of making the FOI Act works, with emphasis on the function of journalism which is about information processing and dissemination.
Stressed also was the need for CSOs and the media to close ranks and work together as it was in the beginning of the struggle in 1993, which was sustained until the Bill was passed in 2011.
The Director, IPC, Mr. Lanre Arogundade in his welcome address stated that the decision to focus on the use of the FOI Act by the media and the civil society was based on recent happenings which show that the journey towards transparency could take longer than anticipated despite the change of government a year ago. For him, it is quite worrisome that a wall
of darkness envelopes the true earnings of our elected leaders; be it in the legislature or the executive, just as the transactions in the oil sector are still shrouded in secrecy based on the under belly of wide spread corruption.
“Yet we have in place the three-year old FOI Act whose enactment was believed would pave the way to greater accountability and transparency by those who exercise public authority on behalf of the people,” Arogundade stated.
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