AS Nigeria joined the rest of the world to mark the World Press Freedom Day on Thursday, May 3, 2012, the implementation of the Freedom of the Information Act (FOIA) signed into law by President Goodluck Jonathan in 2011, came to the fore in Abuja, when participants, drawn from the media, legal profession, government and Civil Society Organisations converged at the National Press Centre, Radio House, Abuja, at a workshop to discuss factors hampering the full implementation of the FOIA.
The workshop, organized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), aside marking the WPFD, was meant to do an overview on the FOIA approved on May 28, 2011, which its compliance level with the law has remained inadequate based on inability to have access to information from government agencies.
Themed: New Voices: ‘Media Helping To Transform Societies’, the participants through a communiqué jointly signed by the communiqué drafting committee enjoined the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ) to further promote the understanding of the FOIA among its members, that government officials must be continuously sensitised on the existence and implementation procedure of the Act, the need for more involvement and proper monitoring of implementation process by top government officials and the general public and that the MDAs should expedite action in setting units for implementation of the Act in different MDAs and that such units should be manned by competent individuals.
“There should be proper training from the Head of Service directing that the FOI Act supersedes the official Secret Act and that officials must not use the oath to deny people access to information, that it has been observed that utilization of the FOI Act by media practitioners is very low and they should seek to use the Act more frequently in their reporting, especially investigative journalism and that the FOI Act does not require domestication in states since it is a national law and therefore it is recommended that states begin implementation of the Act without further delay,” the communiqué read.
The Act is described as the most profound piece of legislation enacted in Nigeria since independence, which remains the most significant down payment in the transformation agenda of the present administration. With its enactment into law, Nigeria becomes the ninth country of ten in Africa with an FOI law. Others include Angola, Ethiopia, Guinea, Liberia, Niger, South Africa, Tunisia, Uganda and Zimbabawe. The Dean, School of Communication, Lagos State University, Prof. Lai Oso who presented the lead paper said despite the crucial function of the media in the transformation of the country, many people are of the opinion that the media has failed in performing its responsibilities.
He added that there are arguments that the media is basically elite oriented based on its content analysis, which has no interest of the
common people and the youths in the society, saying most of the problems facing the media are structural problems.
Prof Oso revealed that the emergence of social media, with the use of the internet and cell phones, the new voices that had been excluded before have now become a major weapon to protest injustices across the African continent.
He disclosed that passing good freedom of information law is not the end of the process but the beginning and implementing the law is usually a much greater challenge than creating it, adding that it is the government’s responsibility to take steps that will make sure that the law is implemented effectively.
The Don suggested six measures that can be adopted to achieve a level of success in the implementation process. This include publishing of information, allocating responsibility to specific staff, training information officers and other public officials,
setting up or improving existing information and records management systems, publicizing the existence of the freedom of information law and reporting on freedom of information activities.
In her paper titled: ‘Implementing The FOIA-The journey So Far’, the Project Director, Right To Know Initiative, Ene Ononche, hinted that if the Act is properly implemented, it will transform quite significantly the way government conducts its business and the way people perceive government. She noted that by allowing citizens’ access to information places an obligation of disclosure and makes public institutions more responsible, particularly when they are aware that information and records that they handle can now be scrutinized by the public.
“It is without doubt that the FOIA will promote accountability, transparency, rule of law and ensure people’s participation in the process of governance which is very crucial for any democratic system to thrive,” she said.
Ononche stressed that in the past, the business of government was conducted as a dark, covert operation; and citizens were not allowed to enquire into how public officials managed the affairs of the State or public wealth, saying the system of government operated in the country prior to the enactment of the FOIA also criminalized and barred public officials from disclosing public information held in the custody of public.
From her point of view, the FOI is fundamental to the protection of freedom of expression, which provides the legal framework for media organizations to legitimately carry out its operations.
Said She, “The role of the media in strengthening an FOI regime is important. This is because the regular function of the media in an ideal democratic government is to ensure free flow of information, disseminate critical messages to the public, highlight issues/concerns/ initiatives, and raise awareness. This role and its role as the societies watchdog and gatekeeper in any society is facilitated by the FOI, which will help promote an informed citizenry, provide voice to the voiceless and promote good governance.
“The media in Nigeria played a major role in the 18 years advocacy campaign for the enactment of the FOIA, and now that the law is in place, the media has an immense responsibility to ensure its effective implementation. Enacting a Freedom of Information law is one major step towards entrenching an open government that allows for citizen participation in the process of governance, however without a strong political commitment geared towards implementation and the right strategies to overcome long-standing cultures of secrecy, the effectiveness of the law will be severely impeded.
Earlier, the National Programme Officer Communication & Information UNESCO, Abuja Office, Oluseyi Soremekun, while doing an overview of the FOIA revealed that Public institution to which an application is made shall, within seven days after the application is received make the information available to the applicant and where the application is denied, the institution shall give written notice to the applicant that access to all or part of the information will not be granted, stating reasons for the denial. The public institution may extend the time limit in respect of an application for a time not exceeding seven days if – the application is for a large number of records.
“Where a case of wrongful denial of access is established, the defaulting officer or institution commits an offence and is liable on conviction to a fine of N500, 000.00,” he noted.
He added that any applicant who has been denied access to information, or a part thereof may apply to the Court for a review of the matter within 30 days after the public institution denies or is deemed to have denied the application, or within such further time as the Court may either before or after the expiration of the 30 days fix or allow.
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