Nigerian Senate President Says FOI Bill Needs Change

4 March 2011

The president of the Nigerian Senate March 3 said that a freedom of information bill will pass before next month’s elections, but suggested that changes are necessary.

While saying that half a bill would be better than no bill, he offered no specifics, according to news reports, but stressed a need for the media to be responsible and noted past concerns about protecting national security matters.  The comments by Senate President David Mark came as he was visited by members of the Newspaper Proprietors Association of Nigeria (NPAN), who advocated quick Senate action on the just-passed FOI House bill. (See previous report.)

“Passage of the bill into law is not a problem but we must show enough restraint and responsibility in order to avoid recklessness in the discharge of our duties,” Marks was quoted in The Nation as saying.

The Vanguard report, by Ben Agande & Inalegwu Shaibu, summarized, “Mark described the FoI Bill as a Nigerian bill and not a media bill, warning that the media must check against its abuse when eventually passed into law.”

Marks said:  “With every position of authority, there is basic responsibility. You have to guarantee that the media will check their members. There is no problem with the passage of the bill, but the media should be responsible enough in using the bill.

The Senate president was not specific about changes he might seek, but stated: “There are certain things that this bill must exclude. If we do not, we will be acting irresponsibly. I think that half bread is better than none. It is better to have a watered down FoI Bill than not having one at all.

According to an account in The Nigerian Compass, “The Senate President explained that some clauses in the Bill must be removed to guide against recklessness in the dissemination and movement of information, stressing that “everybody must be protected.” The story did not elaborate.

NPAN President, Chief Ajibola Ogunsola, told Marks he had an “historic opportunity” to pass the bill.

At the same meeting, the Chairman of Peoples Daily Newspaper, Alhaji Isa Funtua, urged the Senate not to criminalise libel while passing the bill.

In December, Marks linked passage of a FOI bill with creation of a media oversight board. (See previous report.) A key Senate committee chairman expressed similar vies in September, blaming the media for holding up action on the bill. (See previous report.)

Abba-Aji Explains Remarks

The special advisor to President Goodluck Jonathan who criticized the FOI bill, only to have his remarks quickly repudiated by another Jonathan advisor, has subsequently sought to clarify his concerns, according to media reports, including one in The Nigerian Compass. (See previous report.)

Special Adviser on National Assembly Matters, Mohammed Abba-Aji read a statement that said in part: “On the issue of the Freedom of Information Bill, what I did was to draw attention to the conflict that in my view, it is likely to have with the Seventh Schedule of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria as it relates to the Oath of office; and the Secrecy Act, which is yet to be repealed.”

“I also tried to make the distinction between the Freedom of Information Bill, which seeks to compel public officers to reveal official matters, and the Freedom of the Press, which is already enshrined in Section 39 of the Constitution,” he said.

Various pro-transparency groups have asked Jonathan to fire Abba Aji.  “As long as Abba-Aji occupies any position as a member of this current administration in the capacity of Special Adviser on (NASS) Matters, he remains a consistent danger and an antagonist to the ideals of any democratic society and this administration,” said Ene Enonche, R2K Coordinator.

The Muslim Media Practitioners of Nigeria has called on the Senate to endorse the FOI bill as passed by the House.

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