Liberian FOI Law Needs Support System

22 August 2012

By JM Cassell

JM Cassell  is a former  features editor of the New Liberian  newspaper. He is currently the President of Quality Resource Solutions, LLC, a Walnut Creek, California based  pharmaceutical quality assurance recruiting firm. He can be reached at monjue@gmail.com

The Liberian government  took an aggressively bold and somewhat courageous step recently by being the first West African country to introduce  a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The act gives one the right to ask any public body  for any information they have on any subject. All one has to do is to put in an FOI request to have access to whatever public information they desire.  You can also ask the government information about yourself.

In a true spirit of  good governance and transparency,  the  media, civil society and the general public, according to the letter of that law should have unfettered access to government information, unless that information impacts national security.

While this gesture  further burnishes the Sirleaf administration’s democratic credentials,  however, the ecosystem  and ingredients to support this new act is lacking. To put it bluntly, we  do not have an adequate FOI support system in place due to a lack of capacity.

Whenever a country, usually an advanced western democracy, launches an FOI there are reasonable assurances that there is a system in place to accommodate and deliver on the promise of this act. Most likely that boils down to having  a first class information delivery architecture, a mechanism in place to alert and educate the public about their rights under this act,  as well as giving some sort of orientation to staff  at various government agencies regarding their responsibilities. Those factors support and enable the act.

If one makes an FOI request they do so with a reasonable expectation that the information they desire will be accessible  without going through hoops and hurdles due to a broken information delivery system.

Glaring Absence of Infrastructure

Clearly, the media, civil society and other groups that canvassed for an FOI in Liberia were more focused on the novelty of having the act and  not the utilitarian aspects of  this act. They did not factor in the glaringly obvious absence of an infrastructure to make implementation a success. What good is an FOI when it cannot be fully implemented?

The LIB government obviously had the will; the flourishing of newspapers and the new found freedom of journalists and civil society to take government to task on issues of national concern, are a testament to this administration’s adherence to freedom of thought and expression . The FOI was to be another cornerstone in the Sirleaf democratic legacy in Liberia.

Advanced democracies in the West, especially the U.S., invest billions to ensure that their FOI Act is active in each citizen’s life. Thanks to the Internet, information is at each’s citizen’s fingertips, not to mention a well-oiled computerized document management system to support the FOIA. If one wants a document under the FOIA, access is assured by going online to  the specific agency and putting in an FOIA request specifying the docs that they want. Delivery, depending on the sensitivity of the document, is a reality usually within 24 to 48 hours.

In Africa, or specifically Liberia, a developing country replete with challenges, there are many impediments that hinder the free flow or access to information by the public; something as basic as a functioning records management regime, a critical factor in making FOI a reality, is absent.

To make FOI functional,  a nation-wide, computerized government  document management system in all 15 counties will have to take root or the whole concept of  an FOI in Liberia will become untenable. If a member of the public in, say, Gbarnga, Bong County or Grand Bassa evokes the  FOI and wants a mission critical document as part of an investigation or a research project, the Liberian reality is that that research or investigation might  have to be moved to Monrovia, the Liberian epicenter of technology. Even if that’s the case, finding the document that the investigator seeks  may be another hurdle. The government probably wouldn’t know what documents they have or perhaps want to make public.  Government document management reform is a key component in ensuring compliance with the act.

Request Provides Example

A graphic example of a lapse in compliance was showcased recently when the now deceased Editor of the New Democrat, Tom Kamara,  made an FOI  request to get information on the financial dealings of several Liberian  government corporations, including  the Liberia Telecommunications Authority,  Maritime Bureau and the  Monrovia City Corporation.

Knowing Tom as I did, the whole idea was a stress test of the Liberian FOI system; he wanted to see if the system worked. Tom didn’t get the documents he wanted up to his death, not that the corporations had something to hide…they just weren’t configured to provide in real time the sort of information that he requested.  The information requested went beyond their capacity to deliver. That is an egregious lapse of an FOIA and  is the reason, among others, that Liberia is  the only African country with an FOIA. Other countries  opted to wait  until the right mechanisms were in place, or just ignored or whittle down this process as being a non-priority to development. They reckon that while it may be nice to keep your population informed, there are however other pressing issues that eclipse FOIA in the hierarchy of priorities; clean drinking water, ensuring access to healthcare and schools for all comes to mind.

The Liberian media is also a cog in the FOIA wheel, one that plays a mission critical role in conveying information to the public. However, the verdict is out regarding the capabilities of some sector of the Liberian media that they may not have the requisite training to skillfully handle and report on information received via FOIA. This could be an impending disaster, because  Liberia, like many African countries lack an independent or self regulated  media board to settle the sort of disputes that might increase from  the FOI Laws. This is when training  becomes a priority. Even outside  the FOI some us have cringed at the capacity of some so-called journalists to abuse the  rights they have, hence it is plausible that we will see an increase in abuses under this new and unfamiliar arrangement

Additionally, for FOI to work, it also needs an  enabling legal framework and environment. A coherent set of Regulations and laws  will have to be in place to support the act.  Countries that have an FOI usually see a shift in their legal framework to accommodate the newly minted act.

That said, the Sirleaf government must be lauded  for at least taking the initiative, despite the challenges,  to underwrite a major human rights  and pro Press freedom legislation.

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