Challenges, Prospects for a FOI Law in Sierra Leone

22 July 2011

By John Baimba Sesay – Freetown

Reprinted with permission of Sierra Express, where this article was published July 19, 2011.

When Nigeria started its campaign for an access to information law, it was not an easy task especially during the days of former President Olusegn Obasanjo, a former military General. He had his own misgivings sat the time he was President over the FOI issue in Nigeria.  The less I refer to Zimbabwe in terms of a law on freedom of information, the better, because from a realistic perspective, Zimbabwe is not one of best examples of countries with an access to information law. The Information and Protection of Privacy Act 2000 of  Zimbabwe has been in descending twist in terms of meeting the core principles of FOI.

Ghana, as in Liberia also had several challenges in the campaign. The Gambia is another bad example in the campaign for an access to information law. 

Padmaja Padman wrote in a work, titled, “Access to Information as a key to Democratic Governance” that, discussions on access to information are most often approached from the viewpoint of legal and human right…” Generally, the Right to Freedom of Information refers to the right to access information held by public bodies like government ministries, departments and agencies; government parastatals, as well as private bodies that engage in activities which touch a lot on the public interest, for example, private companies that supply electricity; water; and food to substantial numbers of a population, (unpublished work by J.B Sesay, 2010, titled  Role of Access to Information in Strengthening Democratic Governance; A Case study if Sierra Leone).

It reflects the principle that public bodies do not hold information for themselves, but rather, for the benefit of all members of the public.   Groups and individuals should thus be legally empowered by the legislature to access this information which has not been classified as National Security by the legitimate government in power; or, unless there is an overriding public interest reason for denying the inquirer access to information sought from a public source. (See FOIA Guidance — U.S. Department of Justice Guide to the Freedom of Information Act, 2009)

It also  may  refer to the free flow of public held information and it should for the sake of good governance  be a regular process among stakeholders of all public institutions, at all levels of government. It involves all in society to use the doctrine of Freedom of Information to regularly inform their constituents and stakeholders, as to what they are doing or not doing, in the spirit of accountability and transparency.

From the definition, it should be argued, that a society generally stands to gain a lot from a law that guarantees the right to access public held information. And that not just media practitioners are bound to benefit from such a law. A perfect example of a country that guarantees its citizen the right to access public information is the United State Government. The American Freedom of Information Act traditionally increases openness and transparency in the US system of governance.

The promotion of democracy and good governance calls for an open and transparent society, through people’s participation in the running of a given state.  Accessible and understandable information and the means and ability to communicate them are crucial for empowering people to participate in policy making processes and the decisions that affect their lives. (See ARTICLE 19: Global human rights organization which promotes freedom of expression and access to information).

Snail-Like Progress in Sierra Leone

With a population of about six million (Statistics Sierra Leone 2004), Sierra Leone has been advocating for a law on freedom of information.

The campaign has been on for the last 10 years, with a ‘snail-like’ progress in the process, with past and present government having made political commitments towards the enactment of the law. Prior to the commencement of the campaign itself, the country went through a brutal civil war in the region. Causes of such a civil war ranged from corruption, bad governance (TRC Report 2004), among other factors. Implicitly, the lack of a law on freedom of information must have been a root-cause of that civil war, since there was no system of checking, and in the process correcting the mishaps of the political system at the time.

Political commitments to getting the bill enacted did not start today, it therefore would mean, as also suggested by the SLAJ scribe, the strategies should be re-visited and see where changes could be effected. In 2006, the Sierra Leone Parliament, through Elizabeth Lavalie pledged its support in getting the bill enacted (http://news.sl/).

Not only that, even Hon. Ernest Bai Koroma, then Opposition Leader and now President of the Republic, also made his commitment  by assuring a delegation of coalition  members. In 2009, I was also part of a delegation that presented the President with a draft copy of the FOI Bill at State House. During that meeting, the President also pledged his government’s commitment towards the enactment of the law. President Koroma has promised to legislate a Freedom of Information Bill as part of his commitment to fulfilling the bigger picture – the democratization of Sierra Leone (http://www.thesierraleonetelegraph.com/). I think there are possible chances in the bill becoming an Act within the first five years of  President Koroma.

The Society for Democratic Initiatives, a local non-governmental organization, appears to have, for the past decade been taking the lead in the campaign for such a law. This has been the biggest legislative and policy advocacy program of the organization (http://www.sfdi-sl.org/foi.html).

New Strategies Needed?

The organization-SDI, has been working with a coalition on freedom of information; this is one of several strategies employed by the organization to get the bill enacted.  But in a recent statement by the Secretary General of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists, it would appear, the strategies employed by the campaigners have not been of great impact.

Speaking during a stakeholder’s national consultative conference, the SLAJ scribe urged the campaigners to change their strategies in an effort to have the bill enacted, but promised at the same time, his organization’s continued support to be campaign (http://allafrica.com).

I must point here that even within civil society there is apparent division; with one group wanting to have/claim credit when once the law is enacted. The ‘sense of self’ should be avoided and as quickly as possible. Capacity building also has a major factor in determining the extent to which civil society groups could succeed in the campaign. I agree that civil society advocates have done a lot; however, they should get back to the drawing board, look at their weaknesses and try to build on them.

The campaign in Sierra Leone should not be seen as a ‘one man affair’. This, in effect will have a negative outcome on the successful enactment of the law. The major problem is, in my opinion, the seeming personal attachments given to the campaign. Inasmuch as this good, it will however affect the chances of getting a big and heavy voice, which governments have also looked out for in taking decisions. A lot has been done by all the players and efforts should be taken not to derail the successes that have been made over the years.  Notwithstanding this progress, the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists should not be sidelined, in pursuing this issue, because even though an FOI law is not exclusively for media practitioners, they however also formed part of those to gain a lot from such law.

Religious Bodies Should Help

There is also the urgent need to get religious bodies fully part of the campaign.

Edetaen Ojo is Executive Director of Media Rights Agenda, based in Lagos, Nigeria. In a paper presented during a West Africa Regional Workshop  On Access  To Information in 2009 in Ghana, he highlighted the strategies employed by his  country in the advocacy .Strategies were employed  including “direct lobbying of legislators and top government officials through face-to-face meetings, letters and memoranda, phone calls and SMS text messages…”Building strong partnerships with government agencies in Nigeria like the EFCC, and the Human Right Commission of Nigeria, among other government agencies. There were also trainings of grassroots and community based organizations “at both the federal and state levels. A broad-based coalition of more than 200 members was also established as part of the strategies. Training of information officers in government institutions also formed part of the strategies.

Our campaigners in Sierra Leone may want to use some of these strategies. Indeed some of these strategies have been employed, like the building of collation, but the campaigners would need to expand on the coalition membership and strength. The need for stronger partnership with government institution is also necessary. It is not just a matter of presenting the draft FOI bill to them, as was in the case with the ACC in 2008/2009, or conducting workshops and statements delivered by these institutions. Seminars and workshops are not the best of strategies. The Liberian scenario would tell you that.

In 2010, I did an academic research on “The Role of Access to Information in Strengthening Democratic Governance; A Case study if Sierra Leone”. I attempted to find out the factors, responsible for the slow pace in enacting a freedom of information law. A number of factors were suggested by respondents, among them-the fear among corrupt public officials of being exposed by media practitioners. But one outstanding factor highlighted by many respondents “…it entails many procedures and bureaucracy…”  

But on what specific role civil society should play, respondents recommended that “civil society groups should first have a clear understanding of what the concept is all about…they should work with SLAJ ,to ensure the bill is enacted…”The public education aspect has also not proved to be serious and though. It is good the regional headquarter towns have always been targeted, but it has reached a time when towns and villages should also formed part of the target audience, for they also stand to gain a lot from an FOI law.

Religious groups should be encouraged to take the message to their congregation, they should be encouraged to present a common position to government; the SLAJ should not relent in their advocacy drive-radio and TV discussions should be held so as to get citizen’s contribution on the way forward.

Media Not Only Beneficiary

One thing should be done though-there is the need to allay the fears of the political class, that an Access to Information law does not only stand to benefit media practitioners.

An FOI law argued Jeet Mistry of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, Delhi, can help sow the seeds of governance…and also help in facilitating greater public participation in government decision-making. When citizens are given the legal guarantee to access public information, it helps in strengthening democracy since governments would become directly accountable to the governed. Jeet Mistry further argued, that voters become less reliant on political propaganda  and rumors since they would have better access to information concerning the records of government, thus, being able to make informed decisions. It helps to promote dialogue between the state and non-state actors.

Another major challenge here is the aspect of classified and nonclassified information. Classified information is crucial to the consolidation of peace and democracy. Classified information is material, collected or created by a government, that is subject to limitations on its release to the general public, has restrictions on its handling based on security concerns, and may have penalties for its unauthorized release (see en.citizendium.org/wiki/Classified information). This should also not be ignored by the campaigners in Sierra Leone.

There are laws friendly to the concept of freedom of information in Sierra Leone-the Local Government Act 2004 makes clear provision for that.

It states that government officials should declare their assets ‘not later than thirty days’ upon assuming office; that all local government meetings should be made public and members of the public can sit and observe such meetings , among other provisions.  The 2008 Anti-Corruption Act provides for the release of information to an agent of the Commission, and that failure to comply with this is a criminal offence, the Public Procurement Act 2004 provides among other things that all public procurement documents should be public documents.  Also, Section 25 of the 1991 Constitution of  Sierra Leone makes provision for the right of persons to receive and impart ideas and information without interference and this is part of the right to freedom of expression and of speech. All of these laws are pointers to the fact that with time, we are sure of getting a law on Freedom of Information.

Success Possible

There are challenges but they can be defeated when once the campaign becomes a national issue and more especially when the frontrunners see the need to get more people involved.

The scope should not be narrowed for whatever reason(s). As also stated by SLAJ President during an interview for my Thesis work in 2010 “… campaigners for an FOI law must not see themselves as competing, rather complementing each other…”

On his part the Executive Director for SDI believed that there has not been the political will on the part of past and present governments, to get the law. He also believed the campaign was about to be high jacked from SDI…These are the challenges I have always referred to. However, it is my view, there are prospects, with the seeming political willingness on the part of President Ernest Koroma, that we shall one day have this law in our law books.

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