No Action on Sierra Leone FOI Bill as Elections Approach

27 August 2012

The Sierra Leone freedom of information bill remains in limbo despite promises of action in May, prompting an international organization of journalists to urge its approval by parliament.

The situation is described in a recent blog post in Young African Voices which highlights the recent observation by Sierra Leone’s Minister of Information and Communications, Alhaji I.B. Kargbo, that poor performance by some in the media is having a negative impact on the enactment of the FOI bill. Kargbo had indicated that parliamentary action would occur in early May. (See previous reports from June and May.)

The report states:

Responding afterwards to the publicized disappointment of the pioneers of the information Bill, mainly Society for Democratic Initiatives (SDI) and the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ), Mr. Kargbo said he was not a Parliamentarian but had done his own part by facilitating the tabling of the Bill in the House. He said his pronouncement was based on assurances he had from the Members of Parliament.

However, the FOI Bill is still on the table of the Legislative Committee in Parliament. SDI’s Executive Director, Emmanuel Saffa Abdulai, told AYV they have been to Parliament twice in the last couple of weeks and the MPs assured him and his team that they were still looking at the Bill. It is understood that there could be more delays as the head of the Legislative Committee, Hon. Ajibola Manley Spaine, has just been elected as deputy Speaker of the House. And if a substantive head is not elected before the closure of Parliament around mid next month, it is obvious that the FOI Bill will not be enacted until after the November elections when a new Parliament would have been constituted.

Nonetheless, speaking during a visit to him by the Chairman and Commissioners of the Independent Media Commission (IMC) to discuss the achievements and challenges facing the Commission, Mr. Kargbo emphasized the need for journalists to uphold ethical standards and responsible journalism at all times, and especially as the crucial November 17th national elections draw near.

Separately, the International Press Institute’s executive director, Alison Bethel McKenzie, Aug. 24  issued an open letter to Sierra Leone’s President Ernest Bai Koroma urging passage of the FOI bill. The letter states:

I am writing today on behalf of the International Press Institute, a global network of publishers, editors and leading journalists, to request that you do everything in your power to ensure that the Freedom of Information Bill becomes law before the upcoming elections in November 2012. It would be a sign that you and the All People’s Congress (APC) truly stand behind the right of Sierra Leoneans to access public information.

During my visit to Sierra Leone this week, I was grateful to have a chance to meet with the Minister for Information and Communications, Alhaji Ibrahim Ben Kargbo. I also met with officials from the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists, the Guild of Editors, the Independent Media Commission, faculty members of the communications department at Fourah Bay College, University of Sierra Leone, as well as journalists and executives from Premier News, Concord Times, Awoko and Politico newspapers. Through my conversations with these key media players, I understand that the Freedom of Information Bill currently before parliament is taking a long time to pass.

We understand that journalists and other Freedom of Information campaigners have noticed a trend. In recent months, every time a vote on the bill is scheduled, many parliamentarians fail to show up and so the required quorum is not reached. Yet we understand parliament has managed to pass many other laws. Just this week, it passed the Sexual Offences Act, giving women of Sierra Leone some of the legal protections they deserve. With this in mind, it hardly seems coincidental that every time the FOI Bill is up for a vote, not enough representatives show up.

One can imagine why some officials might be reluctant to give Sierra Leoneans the right to access information about their activities. But the Freedom of Information Bill should be welcomed, because it would allow citizens, including journalists, the right to monitor the activities of state institutions and companies. It would give people the right to demand information about how elected officials are using the power and money that the citizens of Sierra Leone provide. This would increase transparency and accountability, and would be a cornerstone in the fight against corruption.

Sierra Leone will hold elections in November 2011.

It would be an important achievement if the government of today were to turn the Freedom of Information Bill into law ahead of that vote, thereby granting future generations of Sierra Leoneans the fundamental right to hold public officials accountable. It would be honourable for parliamentarians to do so without considering whether they will be sitting in the seats of power or the opposition when the law comes into force.

On May 3, World Press Freedom Day, members of the press reportedly marched on the state house calling for passage of the Bill and for the repeal of criminal defamation laws (an initiative which IPI also wholeheartedly supports). According a report in Awoko newspaper, you then promised that the Bill would be passed “pretty, pretty soon,” and said that you would consider amending the 1965 Public Order Act, which criminalizes libel.

We look forward to welcoming Sierra Leone’s new Freedom of Information law in the coming months. We hope it will serve as an example to other countries whose people are also striving for similar legislation.

Your government’s stated interest in passing a Freedom of Information Bill is laudable and puts Sierra Leone miles ahead of many other countries in the region and around the world. But, actions speak louder than words.

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