Sierra Leone Portal No Substitute for FOI Law, Advocates Say

27 January 2012

Promises by Sierra Leone President Ernest Bai Koroma to pass a freedom of information law have resulted in no action, so when he announced a Transparency Sierra Leone portal Jan. 24 and said it would lead to an “unprecedented level of openness,” FOI supporters  reacted with annoyance.

Executive Director of the Society for Democratic Initiative, Emmanuel Saffa Abdulai, was quoted as saying,  “It is funny that governments is undertaking post-freedom of information law initiatives when the bill is being deliberately stalled in parliament with instructions NOT to pass it.”

The portal (http://www.transparency.gov.sl/ — apparently not working yet) is supported by the Commonwealth Secretariat, an association of former British Commonwealth countries, and was lauded by Koroma and Commonwealth officials at a launch ceremony.    

“We advocate an open and transparent government in which we are accountable for the delivery of service,” Koroma said, according to a Commonwealth news release.  “This portal is a gigantic step in ensuring that our people have adequate information about all government projects across the country.”

The portal offers access to data on poverty reduction projects, information on funding and disbursements for various sectors, and an interactive platform for debate on the government’s poverty reduction strategy.

On Jan. 19, Mines and Mineral Resources Minister Minkailu Mansaray announced creation of a website that shows payments to the government made by large and small mining companies and the status of licenses and applications. Sierra Leone is the first country in West Africa with such an online repository, Jonathan Siaka, a director in the ministry, told Bloomberg News.

With a population of 5.4 million people, only 0.9 percent use the Internet, according to data from internetworldstats.com, or, put another way, 216th out of 220 countries evaluated by worldsitesatlas.com.

Koroma Record of Promises

The announcement comes after several years during which Koroma has consistently indicated that passage of a FOI bill was just around the corner.

FreedomInfo.org reported about his hints of September approval in September, 2011, and a promise of passage “soon” made in May. Back in October, 2010, he said that with a FOI law “citizens’ access to information from public officials will be revolutionized.”

Key ministers also gave assurances of passage during 2011.

One official last summer frankly outlined the challenges facing the bill. (See previous FreedomInfo.org report.) Edward Kwame Yankson, Deputy Secretary of the Ministry of Information and Communications, listed “the challenges facing the passage of the FOI bill into law in Sierra Leone” as:

– The MPs believe the FOI is an easy ride for Journalists to intrude into their private lives
– Some MPs are of the view that the structures for the smooth implementation of  the FOI Law such as proper records management systems, trained personnel  and adequate funds must be available before implementation
– The perception of Journalists that the FOI is for the benefit of Journalists alone
– Weak Civil society coalition in the fight towards having an FOI law enacted
– Niche warfare among civil society organizations
– MPs want penalty clauses included for people who misuse  or distort information given to them for selfish reasons

Shorter Path Possible

The end of the parliamentary session in 2011 could require supporters to begin the legislative process again when parliament reconvenes in 2012 even though the Cabinet-approved bill was ready to go before the full parliament before the session adjourned.

However, Yankson told FreedomInfo.org that the government could arrange with Parliament for a procedural waiver that would allow faster action.

The Minister of Information and Communications could negotiate with the Clerk of Parliament and the Majority Leader in Parliament to allow the FOI bill, which has been passed by committee, to go to the well of the Parliament.

Normally, after every closure of a parliamentary session, the reconvened session is regarded as a new session, which means that bills must again go through all the parliamentary steps.

The Freedom of Information Coalition, led by the Society for Democratic Initiative (SDI), recently decided to began a text messaging campaign about FOI legislation to members of Parliament.

Tension With Media Considered Inihibiting Factor

Tension between the government and the media is cited by some as inhibiting passage of a FOIA bill.

According to an article in The Concord Times in July, 2011, “Member[s] of the parliamentary oversight committee on information and communication yesterday strongly advised the media to `take a back seat’ in the campaign to have the Freedom of Information (FOI) Bill passed into law by parliament.”

The article focused on remarks by Hon. Frank Kposowa, a former president of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) and proprietor of “The News” newspaper, at a national conference organized by SDI and the Freedom of Information Coalition.

“It is not that we are against the passing of the FOI Bill but there are some clauses in it that are fine in the open but have serious implications. I advise that the media take a back seat in the campaign to have MPs pass the bill into law,” he noted, according to the article.

Reporter  Ibrahim Tarawallie wrote further:

Moreover, it came out very clear during the conference that MPs were refusing to support the passage of the bill into law just because the media is championing such a campaign and the MPs having the apprehension that the law will make journalists so powerful that they might easily intrude into theirs and other people’s private lives.

However, Hon. Kposowa said they would galvanize support among parliamentarians to have the bill passed into law when they return from recess in September.

The Concord Times quoted SDI executive director Abdulai as stressing that a FOI law would benefit the entire citizenry, not just the media. “He pointed out that the campaign to have an FOI law in Sierra Leone started some eight years ago and that the first bill was drafted by his organization in 2005,” the article noted.

“Secretary General of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists, Ismael Koroma, opined that the campaigners of the FOI law needed to change their strategy in order to have it passed by the legislators. He noted that the scope of the campaign needed to be broadened and communications improved, while also changing the perception of those saying that the FOI was a western concept,” according to the article.

For a broad look at the 10-year old campaign for a FOI law see an article by John Baimba Sesay, reprinted in July 2011 in FreedomInfo.org, and a pessimistic assessment by journalist Sulakshana Gupta, published in April 2011.

SDI Focuses on Local Transparency

SDI on Jan. 12 announced a $122,000 grant from the British development agency to continue training monitors to observe local governments.

Abdulai  said the objective of the project is to promote transparency, accountability and governance literacy, according to a media account.

“The project will help fund activities on coalition-building on issues around transparency and accountability and support and strengthen the coalition with materials and logistical support to be able to monitor the compliance of the Transparency Laws,” Abdulai said.

He said section 107 and 108 of the Local Government Act provides for access to public documents held by Local Councils including receipts of income and expenditure are public documents and publication of local financial statements at the end of every month on notice boards for easy access by citizens.

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