Ex-Liberian Official Assesses Performance on FOI Law

15 October 2012

Some editors in Liberia report that the two-year-old freedom of information law is working well, but other editors have experienced difficulty, according to a former top Liberian official, Tiawon Gongloe.

He spoke at a recent meeting in Dakar, Senegal , about FOI and national security. The session was one in an ongoing series by Open Society Justice Initiative, whcih is drafting international “best practices” on the topic.

During his presentation, Gongloe provided a detailed account of what journalists now think of the FOI law. His remarks were quoted extensively in an Oct. 15 article in The New Dawn by Throble K. Suah. Now  a counselor in private practice, Gongloe is a former Solicitor General and Labor Minister in the Sirleaf administration.

Nine editors, listed in the article, have had no difficulty obtaining information from government sources, since the passage of the FOI Act, he said

“But others,” the article states, “including the Concord Times, said that although they have not been expressly denied information, their experience has been one of being told to ‘go and come back’ on a number of occasions, and stay not being able to obtain the information sought.’

“This type of dillydallying is tantamount to a failure to disclose information,” Gongloe is quoted as saying.

Two leading papers have said they have been refused information they requested, Gongloe continued, listing Abbass Dulleh of New Democrat and Alphonso Toweh of the New Republic Newspapers.

The article further recounts Gongloe’s information:

 “The New Democrat said it asked for information from the Monrovia City Corporation, Liberia Telecommunication Authority and Liberia Maritime Authority, but did not get any answer from any of these public entities, while the New Republic wrote a letter to the Ministry of Finance formally requesting for a complete listing of Liberian Embassies, a financial breakdown of all payments made to these embassies from 2006 to 2011, bank account numbers that such payments were transferred to and a list of embassy staff members,” he noted.

In its letter, Gongloe advanced further, “the paper specifically stated that the request for information was based on the Freedom of Information Act. To this letter the Ministry of Finance responded by asking the paper to refer its request to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for the most accurate and updated information.”

“On March 26, 2012, the New Republic wrote another letter to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, seeking the same information that it requested from the Ministry of Finance, clearly stating that the information was being sought in keeping with the Freedom of Information Act; the paper said that the letter has not been responded to by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs,” Gongloe indicated.

According to him, another interesting case of a failure to disclose information is one that was experienced by the Press Union of Liberia or PUL during the General and Presidential Elections of 2011, i.e, how some media institutions were considered by government to be broadcasting hate messages to the public.

He said the institutions were shut down through a court order based on an injunction filed by state prosecutors in Criminal Court A, Montserrado County.”The court found the institutions guilty of broadcasting hate messages, but ordered the media institutions reopened.””According to the PUL, the Court refused to give them a copy of the records of the proceedings, even after making a written request to court and citing the Freedom of Information Act as reliance,” Gongloe said.

On national security,  Gongloe said the government has not invoked the national security exemption.

Gongloe urged the repeal of laws that inhibit freedom of expression, including Sedition, Criminal Libel against the President and Criminal Malevolence.

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