Passage of FOI Bill in Sierra Leone May Be Problematical

15 April 2011

By Sulakshana Gupta

The author works for the BBC World Service Trust in Sierra Leone and is also a freelance journalist

Since October 2010, the Freedom of Information Bill in Sierra Leone has been pending in Parliament and now there’s a good chance it might not pass until much later.

Sources at the Ministry of Information and Communication whisper that Parliamentarians are terrified of passing the Act before the 2012 national elections. They feel that this will give journalists absolute power to probe into their personal lives.

At a three-country World Bank video conference in Freetown last week, one of the issues that came up was that from the very beginning the Freedom of Information Bill has been completely misunderstood. The common misconception is that it is only to be used by the media. The truth is in many countries it’s not even journalists who use the law. In the U.S. and India for instance, average citizens make the requests themselves. The World Bank is keen to see in implemented properly in Ghana, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

The Sierra Leone bill

The Freedom of Information Bill, formerly known as the Right to Access Information Bill, guarantees that “every person has the right to access information held by or is under the control to a public authority.” The bill lays out a system for requesting this information from government information officers, the expected time it should take to receive a response and any charges associated with the request. Some examples of public information mentioned in the act include: particulars about the structure of public authorities like ministries, functions and duties, details of monthly remuneration received by each of its employees, particulars of concessions, permits and authorisations granted by it.

Every public authority is also supposed to proactively disseminate information via a website or publications. This would minimise the need for people to file information requests and reduce paperwork. Examples of this could be annual financial statements, or details of major contracts published in mainstream newspapers or announced on radio.

An entire section in the bill is devoted to submission of requests. These should be made in writing, describe clearly the information required and provide a correspondence address. It can be filed either in the official language English or Krio, which is also nationally spoken.  If the information officer in the department receives an oral request, it is part of his or her job to write it out and also to assist the applicant if he or she is illiterate or disabled. From this point, the applicant can expect a response within 15 working days. If the information concerns the life and liberty of an individual this is reduced to 2 days. If at all the department does not hold the information and needs to transfer it elsewhere this should be done within 3 days.

There is a sub section that talks about fees and charges associated with the request. Edward Kwame Yankson, senior assistant secretary at the Ministry of Information clarifies that this will be nominal and limited to the cost of making photocopies or printing out documents. “We are establishing information offices in headquarter towns around the country which will be equipped with printing facilities and photocopy machines to keep this cost as low as possible,” he says.

One of the most interesting sections in the bill is about exempt categories of information, which was obviously meant to allay bureaucrats’ fears about a deluge of requests they would be forced to process. Naturally, this is information relevant to national security, bilateral and other trade relations, ability of the government to manage its economy, or if it relates to matters concerning traditional rites and customs of the people of Sierra Leone.

The administration of this act will be the responsibility of an information commissioner, appointed by the President on recommendation by the Minister of Information and ratified by Parliament. Information officers placed in key departments will receive and respond to requests and every department is mandated to set up a records management system.  The challenge is that the government is moving very slowly on the recruitment of information officers and records have historically been a mess in Sierra Leone. The office of the information commissioner will be funded though money from Parliament as well as grants and donations. 

Legislative action on the bill

Since the tabling of the final bill in October 2010, the legislative committee set up to review the bill has met a number of times.  In the most recent meeting, the name was changed from the Right to Access Information Bill to the Freedom of Information Bill. Probably this was a move on the part of Parliamentarians to downplay information as a fundamental right.

Although the act guarantees information as a right it doesn’t offer any guidelines to applicants on how to use the information judiciously. This point was highlighted by one of the MPs and is an area that needs a massive public awareness campaign.

In the definition of terms section, “public authority” has now been redefined to also include civil society organisations and nongovernmental organisations. This is because a lot of relevant information in Sierra Leone is stored within the nongovernmental sector because their recordkeeping is better.

A coalition of civil society organisations called the Freedom of Information Coalition has been pushing the passage of the bill but one voice has been the loudest: that of Emmanuel Saffa Abdulai who heads the Society for Democratic Initiatives. His enthusiasm for the act has endured over the years and he is the face of the legislation to the international community.

Perhaps one of the reasons Parliament is taking it easy is that they feel they’re only up against one individual instead of the weight of the civil society sector as a whole. “We need more CSOs to get involved for Parliament to feel the pressure,” says Yankson.

Abdulai feels that passage is only the first step. “Nothing will change overnight,” he says. The population needs to be trained on how to use the act, what sort of information they should be demanding and practical steps on filing an application. “In Liberia for instance, since the passage of the act in 2010 only one application has been filed,” he adds.

The Way Forward

As mentioned above, greater civil society involvement is required in the passage and implementation of the bill. Notable examples are countries like Jamaica where the Access to Information Act was passed in 2002 and the civil society coalition immediately galvanised to raise awareness around it. In Sierra Leone, a strong coalition will first need to take the act down to the grassroots, beyond just the provincial capitals. Ordinary Sierra Leoneans need to understand how the act will affect their lives in demanding better governance and holding leaders accountable. Only when people own the bill will they fight for it to be passed.

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